Unhealthy tale of NAO report

The National Audit Office is a great British institution - or was.

The National Audit Office is a great British institution - or was.

It was set up by Gladstone, in part to authorise the issuing of public money to government from the Bank of England, and it now has the express power to report to parliament at its discretion on how departments spend our taxes.

This is one reason why, on its website, it says that anyone concerned about the way public money is being spent should write in - which is exactly what IT specialists, suppliers, MPs, and organisations did over the NHS's £12.4bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

These correspondents were then surprised that when the NAO published its report on the NPfIT their concerns were not reflected in the main text.

Now we know why. Three draft NAO reports on the NPfIT released to Computer Weekly under the Freedom of Information Act show that many of the most serious criticisms of the NPfIT were omitted from the final publication (see NAO report: a journey from criticism to praise).

Between the drafts there had been a "clearance" process with health officials in Whitehall.

We recognise that facts have to be checked with departments. But changing wording in such a way as to give a more favourable impression of the programme, and removing entire passages of criticisms that had sound, quoted sources, is not the same as fact checking.

We hope the Public Accounts Committee will take the unusual step of holding another hearing on the NPfIT - and that the Public Accounts Commission, which oversees the work of the NAO, will take a hard look at the specific reasons for the changes to the draft reports.

The NAO exists to ensure there is no mismanagement of public funds. It does not exist to write a defence of the NPfIT.

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