Stern medicine needed for NHS IT failings

Although it has barely started, the NHS IT programme is already controversial. Open-heart surgery is needed

So the National Health Service IT project is going to cost up to five times more than we had previously been told. Bad news for taxpayers, but is anyone really surprised?

The IT industry has a charge sheet longer than Matron's enema tube of delivering big projects late and over budget. Put it in harness with a government and civil service big on posturing but with little real understanding of technology and computing, and you don't need seven years of medical school to diagnose the malady.

It's not even just an IT problem. Consider the Channel Tunnel, the Eurofighter (and Nimrod, and Bowman, and the SA80) and the Scottish Parliament building…… Would any of these have got built it their true price tag had been clear up front? Would you have signed the contract, knowing now what nobody seemed to guess then?

The spiralling cost of the NHS IT project is being blamed on the cost of training staff to use the new system. Whatever happened to usability, and designing systems for users? Implementation does cost a lot, often more than the raw cost of procuring a system. But it's totally unacceptable for the cost of this flagship project to rise fivefold.

The implications of this cost hike on the IT industry could be huge. This isn't any old technology project. It's a key part of the Labour government's attempts to modernise the public sector. Tony Blair will find it hard to eulogise about the reform of the health service if his opponents are ridiculing his £30bn white elephant -- and who can say for sure it will ever work?

The government, the civil service and the suppliers collude endlessly to spend our money while avoiding responsibility. With an election due next year, there will be huge political kudos to politicians prepared to support openness at all stages of national IT projects -- the only way to inculcate responsibility in a system such as ours.

We can, and must, demand an end to the situation where IT service companies and big systems integrators get away with such poor results. Especially when the health of the nation is at stake.