Academics meeting Granger to discuss NHS IT

The head of the NHS National Programme for NHS IT is meeting today with leading academics who have called for an inquiry into the scheme, but compromise does not seem likely

The NHS IT director general Richard Granger has invited a group of dissident technology academics to a meeting on Thursday where he will reiterate his case for pressing forward with the National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

Last week, the group of academics — who are all computer scientists — wrote an open letter to the House of Commons' Select Committee on Health, calling for an independent technical audit of the programme. They cited the major misgivings voiced by a wide variety of parties and the publicised problems of two of the major suppliers, Accenture and iSoft, as proof that an inquiry is needed.

In response, Granger has invited the academics, "from universities across the UK", to a private meeting on Thursday in London to "give them an opportunity to raise their concerns and provide them with an overview of the programme, its progress to date and its technical architecture".

After the meeting has been held, NHS Connecting for Health — which Granger also chairs — "will report the proceedings", CfH said in a statement.

But the academics are not very impressed with Granger's response to their concerns. Edward Carson, professor of system science at City University and one of the signatories told Computer Weekly   that "four or six of us [out of 23 signatories] will accept as a matter of courtesy".

While "welcoming" the opportunity to talk with Granger, the group repeated its call for an enquiry.

The NHS vigorously defended itself in its statement, arguing that the "technical architecture of the National Programme is modern, robust and designed to be future proof. NHS CFH remains confident that it will enable benefits to be delivered for patients whilst ensuring value for money to the taxpayer".

Granger himself has hit out at the critics of the programme. In Australia last week to attend a conference, Granger told The Australian  that people are looking at the wrong issues. "Instead of people saying this is a national scandal that must be fixed, there's a toxic focus on the disruption involved in digitisation," he said.

Granger also lashed out at the IT industry. "There's a fantasy in the industry that IT is a mature industry. It isn't. It's an industry going through massive consolidation. It's probably like civil engineering was 40 to 80 years ago in terms of the number of suppliers, the immaturity of estimating processes and the essential dishonesty between sales pitch and reality."

Others believe that the programme has issues which need resolving, but do not believe it can be solved by following the academics demands for a review of the technical problems.

"The National Programme has serious issues but they are not technical issues, they are change management issues," Richard Lobley, head of the public sector practice of PIPC, told ZDNet UK, a project management company with expertise in the large implementations. "It means change for doctors and nurses and other health professionals and this has to be carefully managed. And their goals are entirely different."

"Richard Granger and the NHS know what they are trying to achieve. The suppliers know what they are trying to achieve, they are going to milk it for all its worth," Lobley said.

The two suppliers who have admitted difficulties, Accenture and iSoft, have said that as things stand they will probably to lose money on the programme. Accenture said that it expected to make a $450m (£260) loss on its part of the contract, and iSoft said it expected to earn £55m less than it originally expected from its work with NHS Trusts. BT has also been fined for failing to meet pre-set targets.