Monday, March 12, 2007

Supercomputer Endgame- Man Eaten By Alligator

Sign outside PAC

Last Wednesday Tyler attended a rather unusual Public Accounts Committee meeting. It was taking evidence from Andrew Rollerson, an executive with Fujitsu, the computer software company. What was unusual was that Mr Rollerson is not and never has been a public employee; unlike virtually every other witness Tyler has ever seen at the PAC.

The reason Mr R was invited was that last month he made some highly critical and widely reported remarks about the NHS Supercomputer- the National Programme for IT. The PAC wanted to hear it from the man himself, and he'd been advised he had to attend (if you decline the polite invite, all select committees have the power to summon you anyway).

We blogged Rollerson's original remarks here, but as you may recall, he told an industry conference (£895 plus VAT- brochure here):

"It isn't working, and it isn't going to work. There is a belief that the national programme is somehow going to propel transformation in the NHS simply by delivering an IT system. Nothing could be further from the truth. A vacuum, a chasm, is opening up."

Which was quite something from someone whose company is earning zillions from building the thing. Naturally, Fujitsu have suspended him.

On the whole, PAC members gave him a respectful hearing (full report here) After all, he'd come without a struggle, and they were keen to hear an informed alternative view about this £20-£50bn grandiosity (to balance the heavily varnished accounts on offer from DoH and CfH officials- see numerous previous blogs).

So they listened respectfully, even though he kept deploying the most toe-curling DavidBrentspeak analogies to make his points (everything from the Moon program and building the 747, to shooting those pesky alligators which keep trying to bite into the canoe).

However, one member gave him a right chomping. In fact, Sadiq Kahn got his gnashers in so far, I felt sure he'd drag poor Mr R under. (For those of you who don't yet know Sadiq Khan, you will. Another lawyer, he's among the best and most ambitious of Labour's 2005 intake. He's MP for Wolfie Smith's constituency, and he's on the way up.)

As you can see in the following vid (shocking quality again I'm afraid), in essence Kahn put it to Rollerson- or "this man" as he called him- that he is nothing more than a publicity seeker (yes, I know- that from an MP...)

Now, watching this exchange you'd be forgiven for thinking that Mr K was intent on just one thing: to discredit the witness.

But why on earth would he do that? As a member of the PAC, surely he'd be more interested in getting the facts about how our billions are being spent? Wouldn't you think?


Maybe it's because, despite its eye-watering cost, terminal technical gremlins, and lack of business support among NHS staff, Mr K really does believe in the Supercomputer. With all his heart and soul. He actually believes all that guff about how it will be the spine and ribcage of a new, high efficency, revitalised NHS.

Yes, that'll be it. He is a socialist after all, so he feels things in a way we small government types apparently don't. Still, just for fun, here are some of the alternative explanations. Even if they do sound extraordinarily warped and cynical.

(a) Impress Gordo- those knackered discredited Labour benches are not exactly stuffed with fresh talent. G needs hungry new whippers and drivers, untainted by the decade of failure, incompetence, and sleaze. New intake guys who can grip a brief and defend anything- even the dire Supercomputer.

(b) Crisis management- According to Tony Collins, Editor of Computer Weekly, the whole Supercomputer programme has slipped into terminal crisis management mode. We know that includes the secondment of crisis management experts from Bell Pottinger, and Connecting for Health is certainly taking a much punchier line with critics: "we welcome constructive and well informed comments. Where we take exception is when they are ill informed, out of date and serve no positive purpose". Which presumably would include Mr R, and certainly bears a striking resemblence to the punchy prepared line of questions Mr K read out at the PAC.

Well, good luck to Sadiq I say. The way things are looking, if he doesn't get a taste of office now, he won't get another chance for a decade. Or more.

Of course, we taxpaying NHS customers will be paying the price of the collapsed supercomputer even longer than that.

BTW, My strong advice to any other insider thinking of blowing the gaff on some wild government money bonfire is to follow the tried and tested route- tell the press anonymously (or better still, tell a friendly blogger using an assumed name). Do not I pray you, imagine the truth alone will protect you. And do not under any circumstances say anything publically that may lead to appearing before the PAC. Even if you do have a canoe and an old service revolver.


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