Monday, June 18, 2007

Supercomputer- Such Stuff As Fiascos Are Made On

I spy another baseless vision

With the NHS "supercomputer" about to plunge into the crevasse, I've taken another look at the costings. How can it possibly be that they've been so hard to pin down?

When the National Programme for IT was launched after one of those Bliar 10DS "summits" in 2002, the cost figure we were given was £2.3bn. The DoH's official NPfIT brochure asked "how will the National Programme be funded?" and answered:

"Central funding of £2.3 billion for the National Programme was announced in December 2002."

Clear enough you might think.

But just ten months later, while answering a straightforward PQ about costs, eery shrouds of unearthly mist began to swirl around Health Minister John Hutton:

"Central funding for the national programme for IT in the NHS is to be made available from the Spending Review 2002 as follows—£370 million in 2003–04, £730 million in 2004–05 and £1.2 billion in 2005–06.

The costs for the ICRS are being calculated as part of the on-going procurement and financial management processes within the SR 02 envelope.

Exact costs are subject to current procurement negotiations. Due to commercial confidentiality and sensitivity, it would not be in the public interest to reveal the details of the negotiations and the potential costs."

We'd somehow slipped from the clear certainties of £2.3bn into a fantastickal realm of "SR 02 envelopes", "subject to negotiations", and that old favourite "commercial confidentiality".

Sure enough, the £2.3bn was in the process of magically transforming itself into something far more terrifying. According to the new vision (from NPfIT quango Connecting for Health, CFH):

"As an initial step, £2.3bn was earmarked in Spending Review 2002 for expenditure on the National Programme over the following 3 years. This enabled contracts worth £6.2bn to be put in place covering procurement, development and delivery of the NPfIT core systems over the ten year lifetime of the project."

So the £2.3bn budget has become an "enabler". Or as you might describe it in the real world, the initial downpayment on a much bigger bill of £6.2bn.

But the revels didn't end there. Move onto last year's National Audit Office Report (blogged here). The costs had by now mystically split into two separate entities- £6.2bn for the core project itself and another £6.2bn for implementation and assorted incidentals. Grand total £12.4bn.

Or perhaps not. My Lord Warner, Hutton's successor as Health Minister, let slip in a soliloquy that costs were actually more like £20bn (see this blog).

No wonder people were losing the plot. When the Public Accounts Committee grilled DoH officials, the redoubtable Richard Bacon tried to clarify matters with Richard Granger, the husky killing head of CfH:

"Q142 Mr Bacon: How much has been committed irrevocably to the programme so far?

Mr Granger: I do not have that exact figure right now.

Q143 Mr Bacon: You do not know? You do not know? We have been told that this programme is going to cost £2.3 billion, we have been told it is going to cost £6.2 billion, we have been told it is going to cost £6.8 billion and we have been told it is going to cost £12.4 billion or £12.6 billion. Lord Warner, the Minister said only three weeks ago on 30 May that it was going to cost £20 billion and you still cannot tell this Committee how much has actually been committed to it

No wonder the PAC issued such a damning report on the whole fiasco (see this blog).

And no wonder the husky killer is leaving. When he joined in 2002, I'll bet he thought he would be doing a real job in a real world. He was probably as shocked as the rest of us to discover just how baseless and insubstantial the fabric of government can be.

The only conclusion we can reach is that the initial costings for the NPfIT were never grounded. The decision to go ahead was taken on the basis of nothing more than melting air. Like so many other government projects.

PS The NPfIT- and most of Westminster politics- was of course based on an original idea by W Shakespeare, who wrote its epitaph 400 years ago:

"These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep."

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