Stop me if you've heard this one before: Government IT project goes over-budget

Another day, another sorry tale of a government IT project going horribly wrong.

When announced in 2009, the General Practice Extension Service (GPES) was supposed to collate information from all GP practice computer systems, and make that information accessible to other NHS organisations. In theory, it would begin to centralise information about patients that could then be used to ensure consistent care in different locations.

In theory.

An investigation by the National Audit Office published today, however, suggests that in practice the GPES has done very little of such thing. In fact, it has ‘delivered’ data to only one customer so far – NHS England – and even that was four years later than planned. In the words of the Press Association, “it is not even certain that all aspects of it work.”

Worse, the cost has (inevitably) spiralled from original estimates. The expected cost is now £40 million, rather than £14 million as promised. A significant chunk of that over-spending pie is made up of £5.5 million wasted on write-offs and delay costs.

While it is expected that Clinical Commissioning Groups will be able to access the program next year, other parts of the program are expected to be ‘paused’ in order to replace bits of the current software.

One would assume that heads would roll. Alas, alas. The quote from the spokesperson for the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which inherited the project in 2013, is a remarkable exercise in buck-passing and blind optimism (courtesy of Press Association):

The report is clear significant issues occurred in the years before the inception of HSCIC, which was created two years ago with a new mandate, structure and senior leadership team. We are equally clear that upon our creation we took full responsibility for delivering a data extraction service that is operationally and financially efficient. Our focus is on developing a suitable service that meets the needs of the NHS and patients and our first priority was to stabilise the service to make sure it could make payments to more than 8,000 GP practices in England. We ensured this happened and have so far supported payments worth approximately £1.7 billion, covering important care areas like dementia.

Is it any wonder projects like this go so heinously wrong when accountability is almost entirely absent? Is there any appreciation of the fact that the £26 million cost over-run is unacceptable, taking money away from patient care? Until there is, we’ll keep seeing too much waste in the NHS. 

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