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Thursday, November 10, 2005

IT choose and book failure- preserving the china

Health Direct's blog reproduces this editorial from the Financial Times: Last week the sound of smashing crockery and breaking furniture could be heard from inside the Department of Health.

The noise was that of Richard Granger, the head of the NHS's £6.2bn IT programme, reacting with fury to the disclosure by Sir Nigel Crisp, the NHS chief executive, that the first landmark outcome from this mighty investment - the electronic "choose and book" system for getting hospital appointments - would be a year late.

The result was another set of headlines about failed government IT projects. The truth is a lot more complicated. The software, in fact, works and was delivered on time, despite key changes to its specification.

What has gone wrong is the health department's spectacular failure to engage the NHS in the programme. There have been more changes to the programme's clinical and management leadership over two years than it is easy to count. The system will be rolled out late not because it doesn't work but because hospitals have been slow to put their clinic slots online and because the department has failed to agree payments to family doctors - or even to decide whether it should pay them - for the work involved.

These are management, not IT, failures. They are a repeat of past mistakes. Hence Granger's anger.

Nothing, however, better illustrates the fact that these huge investments in public service reform are actually about IT enabled change, not IT itself.

Which is why the government's slim strategy document last week offers grounds for hope. Since the arrival a year ago of Ian Watmore, the government's chief information officer, the Cabinet Office has ceased to bark (largely unheeded) orders about IT at Whitehall and the wider public sector.

A council of chief information officers from across the public sector has been brought together which appears to be turning into a group of people who can help and learn from each other, and want to do so.

An overview of what the government is doing, and why, is emerging, along with management structures that might, just, deliver it. And the industry itself is being challenged. As more off-the-shelf software is acquired, the big IT consultancies are likely to earn much less from designing bespoke systems which endlessly reinvent the wheel (though they might earn more from helping with the sort of change management that the health department has handled so badly).

This remains a strategy, not yet a set of results. It will require consistent political, as well as managerial leadership to get these projects treated as business change, not IT.

Yet the departure to pensions of John Hutton marks the fifth change in ministerial oversight in a year. His successor needs to grasp what is needed and be around longer. Otherwise more teacups will be broken and more projects will fail.


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