Keep Taking the Pills

Anyone remember how much The Dome cost? A lot less than the Pathfinder IT project for the Post Office, which swallowed £1.2 billion of taxpayer’s money.

This week, I’m feeling a little shell-shocked. According to eGov monitor, The NHS Information Authority (NHSIA) has awarded EDS a $142 million (£91m) contract to deliver the new national electronic directory and email service that will serve 1.2 million NHS staff.

You remember EDS of course? Who can’t, with their remarkable record of public-service delivery over the years and on this occasion, they need, for the modest sum of £91 million, they will offer the cash-strapped Health Service a web-based email system, Instant Messaging, a security infrastructure, support for PDAs and much much more.

Doesn’t this seem like a bargain until you realise that most of us are using this kind of thing already in the shape of Hotmail and AOL. So why, in God’s name are we asking a third-party to reinvent the wheel when you could conceivably buy the same thing 'off-the-shelf' for rather less? After all, we already use Microsoft’s Government Gateway architecture; so in line with the Prime Minister’s PFI plans, now meeting resistance at this week’s Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, couldn’t we simply approach IBM or AOL or indeed anybody else, to offer the same system at a more competitive price?

If you work in IT you have an intuition that this may well cost much more than £91 million by the time it’s finished, if indeed it ever is, going on past achievements. Call me a nasty, suspicious cynic but doesn’t this project require a quick sanity check or is it a ‘Fait accompli’ like so many other public sector projects.

I’m currently involved in a discussion group, hosted by UMIST, which involves eGovernment experts and facilitators from all over the world. Currently, we are examining the question of why public sector projects fail and fail they do, consistently and for similar reasons in every country represented by the discussion group. In this country, there are many examples of medium to large public sector IT projects that are working but every now and then, one big one comes along and you think, “what’s going on here, does this really make sense”?

What do you think? Is £91 million for the NHS equivalent of Hotmail a good deal?

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