COMMONS

Whitehall is not learning from previous IT failures

31 December 2015

The Committee of Public Accounts highlights severe failures in the creation of the General Practice Extraction Service (GPES) - an IT system designed to allow the extraction of data from all GP practice computer systems in England.

In its 14th Report of this session, the Committee concludes: "Whitehall is not learning from past failures in IT projects, and is still repeating the same mistakes."

GPES started some five years later than planned, is over-budget and still does not provide the full service required.

The expected cost of the project increased from £14 million to £40 million during the planning and procurement stage, and so far only two of the eight organisations identified as users of the service have received data from GPES.

Mistakes repeated

The report says the Department of Health did not ensure effective governance was in place for the project and "very common mistakes" from previous projects were repeated, such as adopting the wrong contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.

The Committee finds the approach of Atos, contracted supplier for a key part of the system, "did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer" and "appears to have acted solely with its own short term best interests in mind".

It urges the Cabinet Office to review Atos’s relationships as a supplier to the Crown, and to ensure the reasons for the project’s failure "are disseminated widely to reinforce the steps that need to be taken to avoid such mistakes being repeated again".

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"Once again we see a failure in a Government IT project at huge cost to the taxpayer.

It’s incredible that basic mistakes on contract and project management are still being made, from inadequate testing to woeful governance.

We keep calling for 'lessons to be learned' and keep receiving reassurances from senior accounting officers that they are. Yet the same issues occur time after time. It’s simply not good enough.

The Government needs to get its house in order, properly address these very serious failings and ensure public money is not squandered in such an irresponsible manner."

Background

Work on the GPES project began in 2007 when it was the responsibility of the NHS Information Centre (NHS IC), which designed and ran the project.

It was overseen by the Department of Health which approved the business cases and provided the required funding as well as contributing technical expertise around the design and how it would integrate with other NHS systems.

GPES is designed to extract data from the four major clinical IT systems used by GPs. NHS IC contracted with the four major suppliers of the clinical IT systems used by GPs to produce software to extract data from their systems.  NHS IC also awarded a contract to Atos in December 2011 to produce the central software required to interact with each of these systems.

On 31 March 2013 NHS IC closed and responsibility for GPES transferred to the new Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

Report summary

The General Practice Extraction Service (GPES) is an IT system designed to allow NHS organisations (the planned users of the service were: Public Health England, NHS England, the Clinical Commissioning Groups, UK Biobank, the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Care Quality Commission) to extract data from all GP practice computer systems in England.

The data extracted would be used to monitor quality, plan and pay for health services and help medical research.

In March 2013 the NHS Information Centre (NHS IC) accepted the system from Atos. The system transferred to the new Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) from 1 April 2013; the HSCIC found that the system had fundamental designs flaws and did not work.

The Department of Health (the Department) failed to ensure that an effective governance structure was in place for the project and that basic lessons from past government IT failures were learned. 

Very common mistakes from past projects were repeated, such as failing to adopt the right contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff on the project, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.

GPES started some five years later than planned; it is over-budget; and it still does not provide the full service required.

Atos, supplier for a key part of the system, may have met the letter of its contractual obligations but took advantage of a weak client by taking the client’s money while knowing full well that the whole system had not been properly tested.

Further information 

Image: iStockphoto

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