Long may Government Digital Service bring about “creative tension” in Whitehall

By Tony Collins

In a report published yesterday (25 October 2016) the National Audit Office said it will shortly be undertaking a review of the Government Digital Service.

It will study GDS’s “achievements and the  challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is  supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government”.

It mentioned its review of GDS in a report on Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Among other things the report looked at the IT that is supposed to support payments of farmer subsidies.

With GDS’s help Defra’s Rural Payments Agency adopted an agile approach to paying subsidies but the two parties fell out and GDS stopped working on the programme.

The NAO’s report suggests that the Rural Payments Agency is glad to be rid of GDS.

“The GDS no longer has significant involvement in the Programme and the Rural Payments Agency told us it has not sought any further support.

“Its distance from the Programme has allowed the Department [DEFRA] to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar.”

Government Computing has a good analysis of the NAO report.

Mandarin power

Francis Maude, meanwhile, has warned that the work of GDS, which has helped to “stop the wrong things happening”, is being undermined, reports Public Finance.

Maude, who set up GDS in 2011, blamed mandarins who were trying to reassert their autonomy.

Maude said that developments such  as controls on spending and improvements in service standard assessment processes do not happen spontaneously.

“You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.

“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well,” said Maude.

“This is, for me, a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”

He said there was a “continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”

Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.

He said it was very odd that GDS was being “scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful”.

In August 2016 Maude warned that it would be a “black day” if GDS were dismantled.

That said, GDS has its critics.


A clash of cultures between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency made it almost inevitable that the two sides would fall out. This is also what happened between GDS and the DWP.

Agile-wedded idealists?

If some senior civil servants had their way, particularly at the DWP, GDS would slowly lose its identity and its staff gradually dispersed throughout the civil and public services.

Clearly civil servants at the Rural Payments Agency looked at GDS  as comprising mostly agile-wedded idealists obsessed with technological innovation rather than paying subsidies to farmers.

But long before the arrival of GDS, the RPA had a history of IT failure. Perhaps the RPA would rather be left on its own to fail without GDS’s help?

The latest NAO report is a little more positive about the RPA’s achievements than some past reports.

But this week’s Farmers Weekly, which has reported extensively on delays of correct subsidy payments to farmers, quoted the National Farmers Union as saying that problems from 2015 claims were still far from over.

The future of GDS?

How easy is it for senior officials in any large central department to work closely with the Government Digital Service?

Departments – particularly HMRC and the DWP – cherish their autonomy, so GDS is seen by some permanent secretaries as an unnecessary interference.

And when it comes to the IT of central departments, GDS has no clear role.

But GDS’s creation was a good idea. Without it, departments will be left alone to continue IT spending on a vast scale.

GDS’s admittedly brief challenge at the Rural Payments Agency and at the DWP on the Universal Credit IT programme has, arguably, slightly modernised IT approaches within those departments.

And even if the costs of big Whitehall IT contracts have not changed much, there’s no doubt that the public face of government IT has improved noticeably (eg using digital passport photos for online driving licence renewals),

The more its people are resented by high-ranking civil servants, the better job GDS is probably doing on behalf of the public.

Consensus can sometimes mean complacency. Long may GDS’s relationship with departments be characterised by a state of creative, noble tension.

National Audit Office report “Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme”.

GDS’s departure from CAP programme leads RPA to ditch agile approach – Government Computing

Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?


Post Office prosecutions plummet

By Tony Collins

post officeThe number of Post Office prosecutions of postmasters has fallen sharply in recent years, from dozens a year to single figures, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Post Office has prosecuted subpostmasters in the past because of false accounting or theft after the Post Office’s Horizon IT system showed discrepancies in the accounts.

The law allows the Post Office to act as investigating authority – and prosecuting authority – when it suspects losses shown on the Horizon system are due to dishonesty by subpostmasters who run local post offices.

Some sub-postmasters have been jailed and some have been made bankrupt or ruined financially after the Post Office required that they repay losses shown on Horizon.

More than 150 subpostmasters are in the midst of a collective legal action against the Post Office. The action is being coordinated by the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. The Post Office is fighting it.

Subpostmasters say the losses were the result of faults in the Horizon or associated equipment and communications, which the Post Office denies. Subpostmasters say that evidence of discrepancies is not the same as evidence of theft.

These are the figures for Post Office prosecutions in the past six years:


The Post Office also gave figures for the number of postmasters suspended:



In its Freedom of Information response the Post Office gave no reason for the plummeting number of prosecutions.

One possible factor is that the Post Office might have re-examined its approach to prosecutions. In 2013 forensic accountants Second Sight began reporting on complaints by about 150 subpostmasters that they were being incorrectly prosecuted or asked to repay money they did not owe.

In 2014 the BBC reported on the contents on of a leaked Second Sight report  that said Post Office investigators did not look for the root cause of the errors – and instead accused the sub-postmasters of theft or false accounting.

The Post Office has issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Second Sight’s reports.

In a separate blog post, I have suggested that the Post Office settle the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance’s legal action – which would mean compensating the individuals and families involved – to avoid protracted legal proceedings causing more suffering.

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Second Sight’s report


Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

By Tony Collins

Julian Wilson was a subpostmaster, one of the founding members of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance.

He and his wife Karen had their lives turned upside down after the Post Office’s centrally-run Horizon system, which was installed at the local branch they ran, showed unexplained losses.

He was one of more than 150 subpostmasters across the country whom the Post Office has blamed for losses shown on Horizon.

Subpostmasters run smaller post offices under a contract issued by the Post Office. Under their contracts, subpostmasters are personally responsible for deficits at their branches.

MPs and TV documentaries have raised concerns about whether the Post Office has accused subpostmasters of criminal actions when technical faults might have caused the losses.

The concerns of MPs were reinforced by the findings of forensic accountants Second Sight. At the request of MPs, the Post Office brought in Second Sight to investigate each of the subpostmaster complaints.

The Post Office criticised Second Sight’s findings and said there was no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing. “There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money,” said the Post Office.

Julian Wilson

TV investigative reporter Nick Wallis, who has reported on the Post Office Horizon IT system for the BBC’s The One Show, and has followed the story for many years, has written a moving post on the death of Julian Wilson who fought for justice for as long as he was able.

On his blog, Wallis says of Julian, “He was, I suppose, what we journalists call a contact.

“But his gentle manner, generous spirit and calm good humour made me think of him as more than that.”

Julian was prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting. He pleaded guilty and went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal, says Wallis.

When Julian died, his conviction was one of 20 subpostmaster cases being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Technical fault or crime?

More than 11,000 post offices have used Fujitsu’s £1bn Horizon system for branch accounting and rarely have had problems. At the close of each day, the system has balanced money coming in from customers and money going out.

If the system showed a shortfall, subpostmasters had few options: make up the deficit out of their own money, sign off the accounts as correct, or refuse to sign off – which might have meant closing the post office (and upsetting customers) while a financial audit took place.

The Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters who signed off the accounts as correct knowing there were unexplained losses; and it prosecuted in some cases for theft.

Dozens of subpostmasters have been jailed, made bankrupt or had their lives ruined after the Post Office took action against them in the light of discrepancies shown on Horizon.


Julian Wilson was determined to clear his name.

Wallis interviewed him in December 2014 alongside his wife Karen in a village hall in Fenny Compton, where the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance met for the first time in 2009.

“Karen stood there with tears streaming down her face as Julian explained in his measured, Hampshire burr how problems with the computer system at their Post Office in Astwood Bank had caused their lives to fall apart.”

Wallis says there was never a trace of bitterness about Julian. “He accepted things with great patience even though he was still in danger of losing his house because of the Post Office’s pursuit of him.”

Julian found out he had terminal cancer towards the end of last year. “This summer he deteriorated rapidly,” says Wallis.

One of the comments on Wallis’s blog says of Julian,

“He carried on campaigning against the Post Office until he had no strength left to fight and I made him a promise – in the last few days of his life – that I would keep going along with the JFSA [Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance] until we got our long-overdue justice.

“What an absolute tragedy that such a good man should be taken from his beloved wife Karen and wonderful daughter Emma before his name had been cleared.”

Another said,

“RIP Julian – I am so sorry that we could not let you leave this world with the vindication you will certainly, but now posthumously, receive.”


Subpostmasters represented by Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have issued a writ against the Post Office and the legal action is well and truly underway – but Julian Wilson’s untimely death shows that not all the individuals involved in complaints against the Post Office can afford the time to wait for justice.

In some cases, complaints go back at least eight years – so far.

The Post Office’s argument all along has been, in essence, that there is, and never has been, any evidence that Horizon caused the losses.

But neither is there evidence that more than 150 subpostmasters stole the money in question.

Institutional blindness?

In a BBC Panorama documentary on complaints about Horizon, Ian Henderson, a Second Sight investigator, told reporter John Sweeney,

“Horizon works reasonably well if not very well most of the time. In any large IT system it is inevitable that problems will occur.

“What seems to have gone wrong within the Post Office is a failure to investigate properly and in detail cases where those problems occurred. It’s almost like institutional blindness.”

The Post Office denies this and maintains that it has investigated each case thoroughly.

What strikes me, though, is the insularity of the Post Office’s case.


Imagine if airlines and aircraft manufacturers were allowed to be the judge of whether pilots were to blame after major incidents.

The RAF’s hierarchy wrongly blamed two pilots for the crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994. It took 17 years for the families of the dead pilots to win justice for their dead sons.

It was only after numerous independent inquiries, Parliamentary hearings and leaks of a mass of material about problems with the helicopter’s computer systems that the RAF’s finding of gross negligence against the two pilots was quashed.

The case showed that, despite the sincerely-held beliefs of two air marshals that the pilots were, without any doubt, at fault, the RAF was eventually found to have failed to take sufficient account of the possibility of a technical malfunction, or a chain of events involving a technical malfunction.

The restoration of the pilots’ reputation came about not because the RAF’s hierarchy changed its mind about the pilots’ gross negligence, but because there was a change of government in 2010 and setting aside the finding against the pilots was the will of Parliament.

The then Coalition government decided that a technical cause of the crash could not be ruled out.

Of course there was no air crash in the case of the subpostmasters. But there was a similarity: the RAF and Post Office are State institutions that dismissed complaints about their equipment and blamed the system “users”, with devastating consequences for the reputations and lives of the families involved.

There is also a fundamental difference: a regulatory authority always undertakes investigations into air crashes.

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are not the legal investigating authority. In the UK it is the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. In its investigations into possible equipment failings, the AAIB has powers set out in law [including the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Air Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 1996] to require information from airlines and manufacturers.

In the case of the subpostmasters, the Post Office was the owner of the computer equipment that showed the losses; it was responsible for investigations into that equipment; and it was the prosecuting authority.

Contradictory evidence

There have been numerous commercial air crashes where regulatory investigating authorities have uncovered evidence that contradicted evidence from the airlines or manufacturers.

Sometimes it took regulatory authorities several years to discover the truth. Eventually they found technical faults where manufacturers had said initially there were none.

In the case of the Post Office Horizon controversy, there are no regulatory investigating authorities.

When accused subpostmasters have blamed the system for the losses, they have been unable to rely on an Air Accident Investigation Branch to produce a final report that could not be contested by the airline or manufacturers.

The Post Office could argue (rightly) that it operates under completely different laws, rules and regulations to the legal and regulatory framework that governs investigations of air crashes. In the Post Office cases, no public safety is involved.

But the Post Office has had a succession of serious incidents: the lives of 150 or more subpostmasters and in many cases their spouses have been thrown into turmoil.

Is this not a succession of serious incidents in which none has been the subject of an inquiry backed by a regulatory authority?

It’s a credit to the tenacity of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance that legal proceedings have been issued. But the wheels of justice turn slowly. With appeals, the case could drag on for years.

More uncertainty and suffering for the families involved?

It’s also obvious that the Post Office has deeper pockets than those of individual subpostmasters.

That’s one reason why, after serious air incidents, the independent investigating authorities have complete control over their inquiries. Air accident investigators recognise that lawyers for airlines and manufacturers may seek to defend their organisations after a serious incident.

Sometimes air accident investigators will conduct parts of their investigations without relying on evidence from the manufacturers.

In the case of the accusations against subpostmasters, what powerful independent organisation exists to challenge the evidence of the Post Office?

The Post Office was able to commission Second Sight and later to discontinue its contract. The Post Office was also able to issue a point-by-point denial of Second Sight’s findings.

Imagine an airline or aircraft manufacturers being able to order independent investigators to discontinue their inquiries after a succession of serious incidents?

The Post Office said in response to Second Sight’s reports that it was “unable to endorse” the findings. After serious air incidents it would not matter if the airline or manufacturers disputed the report of regulatory authorities. The regulator’s report would stand.


The Post Office has a duty to prosecute subpostmasters who steal. But could it also do more to recognise that the imbalance of power and resources puts subpostmasters who have gained nothing – and lost much as a result of losses shown the system – at a severe disadvantage?

As the prosecuting authority, and the investigating authority, the Post Office is not open to serious challenge except through the courts where it has the money and resources to sustain costly and protracted battles.

Is this fair? Is this just?

The Post Office has every legal right to carry on exactly as it is, but could it not instead consider the cases on the basis of “benefit of doubt?”

In other words concede that there is doubt over whether subpostmasters had criminal intent?

Taking into account ordinary fairness and magnanimity in the face of its extraordinary power, the Post Office could settle the cases now, and not put the families of so many subpostmasters through any more suffering.

Nick Wallis’ post on Julian Wilson

Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” Post Office IT? What now?

Communication Workers Union warns subpostmasters of flaw in Post Office Horizon accounting system

Horizon not fit for purpose at some branches?

Labelled as criminals – Telegraph

Jonathan Green-Armytage

By Tony Collins

Jonathan Green-Armytage, one of the most helpful and charismatic people I have had the pleasure to know, has died. He was a journalist at Computer Weekly in the 1980s and 1990s and later joined Gartner.

After I joined Computer Weekly he gave me a unique perspective on the ICT industry. He was proof of the old adage that the better you understand a complex subject the more simply you can explain it.

An Oxbridge classicist, he understood the origins of English well enough to dislike long words where short ones would do; and I often think of JGA – as we used to call him – when I’m tempted to use an abstract instead of a concrete word or phrase.

JGA is a reminder that saying things simply takes time and thought. [Bernard Shaw said he didn’t have the time to write a short letter.]

I’ll also remember JGA for his gruff-gleeful humble-professor explanations that could make anyone smile appreciatively.

John Riley, formerly Deputy Editor of Computer Weeky, has written a wonderfully memorable obituary. Sorry JGA – I couldn’t resist “wonderfully memorable”.

Jonathan Green-Armytage

“Teething” problems on Capita’s NHS contract turn more serious

By Tony Collins

capitaA senior official at NHS England has said that problems on a contract to outsource GP support services to Capita have “put patients at risk”, according to GPs magazine Pulse.

In June 2016 NHS England said problems on Capita’s £330m seven-year contract to provide primary care support services to GPs were “teething”.

The contract started in September 2015.

Directors at NHS England’s September board meeting said that problems with Primary Care Support England had ‘escalated’ this summer and that the problems were ‘creating some risks for patients’.

Karen Wheeler, NHS England’s national director for transformation and corporate operations, is reported by Pulse to have told the board,

“I just want to recognise that obviously this has impacts for users, which include of course primary care contractors – GPs, ophthalmic and dental practitioners – and recognise that that’s difficult for all those users, and indeed creating some risks for patients as well.

“So we are doing everything we can to make sure that we escalate, and address the risks particularly for patients, and we will be communicating with practitioners how we are planning on, with Capita, to try to improve services as quickly as possible.”

Problems include undelivered patient notes, which has led to GP practices chasing records. There have also been delays in GP payments and clinical supplies.

Angry GPs

NHS England’s chairman Professor Malcom Grant has angered some GPs by praising NHS England’s directors, and their teams, for the “huge amount of work” they have put in “trying to ensure people aren’t harmed by this at all.”

Pulse quotes Professor Grant as saying,  “As you know the board takes this extremely gravely. When we say unacceptable, we mean unacceptable. I think we need to pay tribute to you [Karen Wheeler] and the team for the huge amount of work that has gone into trying to ensure that people aren’t harmed by this at all.”

A Capita spokesperson told Pulse: ‘Across all PCSE [Primary Care Support England] services our focus is to ensure that GPs and primary care providers are supported so they can concentrate on patient care.

“We fully recognise that the administrative services we provide play a key role in supporting primary care providers and ensure that urgent work is always treated as a priority.

“We have openly apologised for the level and varied quality of service we have provided across a number of PCSE services. As NHS England acknowledges, we are working very closely with them, supported by their subject matter experts, to implement step changes to improve current services.”

Responses to the article on Pulse’s website criticised NHS England’s chairman for praising his officials when it was NHS England that had made the decision in the first place to outsource GP support services.

One comment: “Apologies aren’t worth anything currently. We are struggling at [GP] practice level and NHSE [NHS England] don’t give a damn.”

Another said, “So ‘hubs’ and combining ‘back office’ functions not always the cost saving, efficiency panacea then… Let’s hope we learn the lessons and value our ‘back office functions’ more highly.”

An anonymous NHS manager said the decision to outsource to Capita had been taken “behind closed doors, without any meaningful staff consultation and with zero knowledge of what primary care support services actually do”.

The manager added,  “NHS England is part of the problem. It’s about time they were held to account.”

Capita’s share price is currently less than half its 52-week high, for a range of reasons.

Record one-day fall in Capita share price – will customers care?

By Tony Collins

The share price of outsourcing specialist Capita fell 27% yesterday, a record one-day fall for the company. It was down a further 5% this morning (10.30 am, 30 September 2016).

The company said in a regulatory statement yesterday it is taking immediate steps to reduce the cost base in its underperforming businesses, which should benefit its 2017 results.

Some customers may be entitled to ask whether the transformation-based outsourcing services they are buying from Capita will be affected by any of the company’s financial pressures.

In local government Capita has what it calls “transformational partnerships” with Sheffield City Council, Southampton City Council, London Borough of Barnet, Blackburn with Darwen Council, North Tyneside, West Sussex County Council and Oxfordshire County Council.

Capita also has a joint venture agreement with Birmingham City Council, in a partnership that goes by the name of “Service Birmingham”.

Capita’s regulatory announcement yesterday said “our performance in the second half of the year to date has been below  expectations, as a result of a slow-down in specific trading businesses,  one-off costs incurred on the Transport for London (TfL) congestion charging contract and continued delays in client decision making”.

The company’s trading update said,

“Capita is taking immediate steps to reduce the cost base in the underperforming businesses, which should benefit 2017.”

Capita expects that capital expenditure will be lower than last year.

Outsourcing advocates may see the slow-down as temporary problem for Capita – and indeed the company has announced £949m of “major contract wins in the year to date,  including being recently selected by Three as the preferred bidder for a contract to provide customer management services in the UK, which is expected to start in 2017”.

It added, though, that “revenue from new major sales in the second half of this year is likely to be lower than expected, due to continued delays in decision making and lower conversion of our pipeline”.

Other observers of the outsourcing market may wonder whether major suppliers will always have enough margin to transform a customer’s business, including big new investments in ICT, while continuing to run the client’s operations successfully.

In yesterday’s trading update, Capita referred to problems on two contracts, one with Transport for London and another with the Co-op Bank. It said:

“We have experienced delays on the implementation of new IT systems on the  Transport for London (TfL) congestion charging contract.

“As a result, we expect  to incur between £20m and £25m of one-off costs, which will be included in our  underlying results. The systems have now gone live, the contract is performing  well operationally and these costs will not recur next year.

“Furthermore, we  are in a contractual dispute with the Co-op Bank regarding obligations relating  to the transformation of services.  The ongoing mortgage processing being  undertaken by Capita is performing well.  However, there is a risk of  litigation in respect of the transformation.”

Co-op dispute

Capita’s chief executive Andy Parker was reported in The Telegraph as saying there was a “high” risk of litigation with Co-op Bank over its contract to help administer mortgages.

“Everything’s ready to go and the client is refusing to sign off for one reason only – if they sign off, they have to pay us,” he is quoted s saying. “We’re still hitting targets and delivering for this bank.”

The Co-operative Bank, for its part, suggested it is owed money for delays, and denied it has failed to pay. “The bank strongly refutes Capita’s suggestion that they have delivered an element of the transformation programme which the bank has not paid for,” Co-op Bank was quoted as saying. “In addition, there are amounts which the bank regards as owing to it by Capita.”

Co-op added that it continues to “work through” the issues with the programme.

“The bank continues to work through the issues surrounding this transformation programme with Capita. The existing outsourcing of mortgage processing to Capita both for new and existing bank customers continues to operate in a satisfactory manner and the bank is committed to ensuring that this remains the case going forward,” said the Co-op.

Transport for London

On Capita’s TfL congestion charge contract, Andy Parker said,

“The upgrade proved more complex than we anticipated and the penalties ramped up very quickly.”

At Forbes, which has ranked Capita as one of the world’s most innovative companies, a writer and analyst warned (speculatively) of the possibility of “further profit downgrades in the months to come, allied with the possibility of subdued revenues growth in the years ahead.

Analysts say Capita’s prospects may be dented by uncertainties over Brexit.

The concluding paragraph of Capita’s trading update yesterday said,

“We remain confident of the strength of our business model and aim to return the Group to profit growth next year, excluding the benefit from TfL one-off costs  dropping out.”

Capita is a FTSE 100 company. In 1991 when it was floated its turnover was about £25m. Now it’s close to £5bn. It employs 75,000, about 17,000 of them abroad.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to Capita’s announcement yesterday.

Capita trading update


Cambridge University trust to end 10-year £200m outsourcing deal early?


By Tony Collins

Two years after going live with an electronic patient record system as part of a 10-year IT outsourcing contract – one of the biggest in the NHS – Cambridge University Hospitals is going out to tender for similar services.

The Trust, which runs Addenbrook’s and the Rosie hospitals in Cambridge, describes the exercise as “market testing”, according to Government Computing.

Last year trust regulator Monitor put the trust into special measures after it over-spent an average of £1.2m a week, in part because of the huge costs of eHospital.

“The Trust underestimated the scale and challenges of implementing its new electronic patient record system, e-Hospital, and the impact this would have on its provision of healthcare for its patients. These issues led to significant cost increases and a failure to realise the benefits the system could provide,” Monitor said.

A Care Quality Commission report last year also criticised the implementation of the trust’s eHospital systems.

But in July this year the trust was shortlisted in three categories of a national award for using IT to improve patient care.

The trust went through to the finals in three categories: digital NHS trust or health board of the year; best use of IT to support integrated healthcare services, and the CCIO award for clinical informatics leadership.

ehospiital-logoEpic and HP

On 26 October 2014 that the trust went live with the “eHospital” project, which allowed clinicians to access patient information wherever they were in the hospital.

Clinicians use hand-held devices and computers on wheels to record care at the bedside. The devices enable the trust to record details of care in real-time into the new electronic patient record system.

The cost of the eHospital project over 10 years was expected to be £200m. The project involves software from US-based electronic patient records supplier Epic and hardware, services, infrastructure and support from Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

The trust’s board decided to spend the equivalent of a substantial new hospital building in an attempt to get the IT to match its reputation.

The eHospital project began in 2012, though the go-live of the patient records system was not until 2014.


In a statement to Government Computing, Zafar Chaudry, Chief Information Officer at Cambridge University Hospitals, said of the latest tender,

“Almost four years into the eHospital programme, CUH [Cambridge University Hospitals] has exponentially increased the use of its Electronic Patient Records and seen a growing demand in the size and types of commodity IT services needed by the Trust.

“As such, we are market testing to ensure best value for public money to meet these needs, whilst recognising our partners, HP, have and continue to meet their contractual obligations.”

The trust’s tender dated 14 September 2016 says it is looking for “outsourced commodity IT services for enterprise infrastructure, service desk and end user computing including the provision of server, storage, electronic patient record application, LAN and WAN”.

The estimated contract value is £140m over seven years, with an option to renew for a further three years. From the tender document it does not appear that the trust is seeking to replace the Epic software.

In its 2015/2016 annual report, the trust was positive about the results of the Epic eHospital project.

“We are also now in our second year of operating with a comprehensive electronic patient record system in the form of Epic, as part of a ten year eHospital programme.

“The period following deployment saw a number of significant challenges, but we are now entering a phase where Epic has become very much a part of daily life and, as we consolidate our position, we are settling to the task of ensuring that we realise the many benefits of the system.”

Although there are still challenges – mainly a shortage of staff and money, with the trust anticipating a budget deficit of £74m in 2016/17  – eHospital’s benefits so far include:

  • the deployment of “business grade wifi in all clinical areas.
  • a refresh of the desktop estate of 6,750 PCs and 500 laptops.
  • the deployment of “workstations on wheels” and 420 “rover” devices (iPod touch with a barcode) for mobile working in clinical areas.
  • direct integration of physiological monitors and ventilators in all theatres and critical care areas, along with connectivity of point-of-care testing devices for integrated near-patient testing.
  • electronic patient record in full use for all aspects of care across all clinical areas in-patient and outpatient areas, typically with 3,200 concurrent users in the system at peak times, apart from paediatric chemotherapy.


On the face of it, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is seeking to replace its 10-year £200m outsourcing deal long before it’s even half way through.

But all of its literature implies it is happy – indeed proud – of the Epic system. It also seems content with Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s infrastructure and other services, though it’s not so clear whether it’s happy with its prices.

The tender could be merely an exercise to compare the prices it is paying with the prices available on the market, which could leave Hewlett Packard Enterprise, in essence, competing to keep its work at the trust.

The trust’s CIO told Government Computing that Hewlett Packard Enterprise has and continues to meet its contractual obligations.  That’s not in dispute, but it’s possible for users to be unhappy about suppliers even when contractual obligations are being met. The trust could have discovered that a new or revised contract is needed.

On the other hand, the tender could be the trust’s way of proving to the regulators that it is paying market prices for its patient record systems, outsourcing and ICT services.

The trust may have nothing to lose and everything to gain by an open tender while it’s only three years into a £200m 10-year outsourcing deal.

On the other hand, will IT companies want to spend large sums on bids none may be able to win?

Cambridge University Hospitals £140m market test – Government Computing, September 2016

Capita and NHS England apologise after continuing problems on £330m contract

By Tony Collins

NHS England to GP Committee of the BMA

NHS England to GP Committee of the BMA

GP magazine Pulse has published a succession of articles on varying problems arising out of NHS England’s seven-to-ten year £330m outsourcing deal with Capita. Now the two sides have issued separate apologies.

NHS England’s national director for transformation and corporate operations, Karen Wheeler, has issued an apology for the ‘unacceptable level of performance’ from Capita in the letter to the British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul.

Wheeler wrote that NHS England had applied “financial service credits” to Capita due to ‘agreed performance targets missed’.

A Capita spokesperson told Pulse,  ‘We fully recognise that the services we provide play a key role in supporting primary care providers and apologise for the level and varied quality of service we have provided across a number of PCSE [Primary Care Support England] services.’

Some of the problems on the contract are outlined here.

Missing records

The Guardian reported last week (14 September 2016) that,

“In some cases, GPs have had to hold their first appointment with a new patient without their medical records to guide their decision-making, because Capita has not transferred them in time. Even some urgent requests to process records quickly because a patient had a medical emergency have not been acted upon.”

It added,

“Local GPs are reporting to the BMA that they are facing unacceptable delays in patient record transfers and mistakes in maintaining supplies of crucial medical equipment like syringes and even prescription pads”, said Dr Chaand Nagpaul.

The Guardian said a new survey of local medical committees, which represent GPs, found that family doctors in almost every area of England had experienced problems with Capita’s performance.


It’s unusual for any major technology company to apologise publicly for problems on an outsourcing contract, in part because of commercial sensitivities and also because it’s not the supplier that has the ultimate responsibility for a service provided to end-users, in this case GPs.

However, what makes this outsourcing contract unusual is the open and forceful complaints of GPs – and medical organisations that represent them.

Usually in any major public sector outsourcing deal – such as those involving local councils, central government or NHS trusts –  both sides, supplier and client,  have a mutual interest in keeping any problems secret.

In the case of the GP Support Services contract, the end-users are doctors who, as a profession, will tend to express their concerns about private contractors publicly.

What a refreshing change. It’s only through openness when things go wrong that there is a likelihood of effective accountability for the way public money has been spent, or misspent.

It’s clear the problems are not all Capita’s fault. In trying to save money by outsourcing, officials at NHS England probably dismissed negative stories about failings on some outsourcing deals as ungrounded media speculation.

Anyone accountable?

Now that things continue to go wrong – despite months of assurances that problems are being resolved – will anyone at NHS England be held responsible for underestimating the impact on GPs of risks materialising – and underestimating the likelihood of those risks materialising?

Were anyone ever to be held responsible it would probably be the wrong person, such as a middle-grade manager who was only doing what senior officials expected.

id officials fail to probe deeply enough into the many things that could go wrong on such a complex contract?

NHS England has expected Capita, in essence, to learn a foreign language in a matter of weeks. Should anyone be surprised that what some GPs warned about before Capita took over has come about?

In 2015, when Capita was chosen as preferred bidder for the outsourcing of GP support services,  the General Practitioners Committee’s then deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey  said the committee had ‘grave concerns’ over the plans.

But even before NHS England received bids for the outsourcing contract, the then head of the contracts and regulation subcommittee of the GP Committee, Dr Robert Morley, told Pulse,

“The portents are absolutely horrendous for general practice I’m afraid…There’s nothing at all that reassures me this isn’t going to be an absolute bloody disaster.”

NHS England letter on Capita contract – September 2016

Capita NHS contract under scrutiny after “teething” problems – June 2016

GPs decry Capita’s privatised services as shambles – The Guardian

Did NHS England consider us in the Capita take-over?

NHS England vows to hold Capita to account

Capita mistakenly flags up to 15% of GP practice patients for removal  

Capita primary care support service performance “unacceptable”



Atos pleased after it’s cleared of “sharp practice”

By Tony Collins


A Cabinet Office review of the Whitehall contracts of IT services company Atos following a Public Accounts Committee allegation of “sharp practice” has more than  exonerated the supplier.

After looking at 12 Atos government contracts, the Cabinet Office has written to the Public Accounts Committee praising Atos for going beyond its contractual obligations. Where the company has fallen short, it has taken remedial steps.

Rarely are any government statements on an IT supplier replete with praise.

It’s likely the vindication will take some MPs by surprise after failings in a project to gather and collect in one place data from all the various GP practice systems – the so-called General Practice Extraction Service.

Now Atos may in future be a position to use the statement as evidence, when bidding, of its success in delivering government IT services and projects.

Millions written off

In December 2015 the Public Accounts Committee was highly critical of Atos in its report on the extraction service project.

The NHS Information Centre accepted the system from Atos although it didn’t work properly. The Centre also made public announcements at the time on the system’s success.  In fact the system had “fundamental design flaws” and millions of pounds was written off.

The Committee said,

“Very common mistakes from past projects were repeated, such as failing to adopt the right contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff on the project, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.

“GPES [General Practice Extraction Service] started some five years later than planned; it is over-budget; and it still does not provide the full service required.

“Atos, supplier for a key part of the system, may have met the letter of its contractual obligations but took advantage of a weak client by taking the client’s money while knowing full well that the whole system had not been properly tested.”

The Committee said that the NHS official who was chief executive of the Information Centre when it accepted the flawed system was “awarded total emoluments of £470,000 for the financial year 2012–2013 including a redundancy payment of £330,000”.


The Committee found that in its approach to the project, “Atos did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer”.

“We are not satisfied Atos provided proper professional support to an inexpert client and are very concerned that it appears to have acted solely with its own short term best interests in mind.

“Atos admitted that end-to-end testing should always be undertaken and that it was supposed to have happened in this case. However, NHS IC and Atos agreed a more limited test of the Atos component due to delays in completing other parts of the system.

“The Atos software passed this test, but after NHS IC accepted the system—and to Atos’s professed surprise—the system as a whole was found not to work. Atos claims it fixed the issues relating to its software at its own expense and that the additional £1.9 million it received while doing so was for additional work related to 15 new features.

“We found that Atos’s chief executive, Mr Adrian Gregory—the company’s witness in our enquiry—appeared rather indifferent to the plight of the client; we expect more from those contracting with government and receiving funds from the taxpayer.”

“Sharp practice”

The Committee recommended that the Cabinet Office undertake a “full review of Atos’s relationships as a supplier to the Crown”.

“We expect the Cabinet Office to note carefully this example of sharp practice when determining what obligations a duty of care on contractors should entail and what sanctions would apply when performance falls short.”

The government agreed to have a review.

Findings of Cabinet Office review of Atos contracts

The Cabinet Office found no “examples of behaviour that might be described as sharp commercial practice in the course of this review”.

The review team looked at 12 Atos contracts worth a total of more than £500m a year – 80% of Atos’s work with central government.


No: Department Contract Name
1 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
2 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Government Gateway Agreement
3 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ICT in support of medical assessments
4 HM Treasury (HMT) National Savings and Investments (NS&I)
5 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Development, Innovation and Support Contracts (DISC) Infrastructure Services Agreement
6 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) End User Computing Services (EUCS)
7 Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) Shared Service Alliance
8 Home Office (HO) IND Procurement of Infrastructure Development and Support (IPIDS) Agreement
9 Home Office (HO) Contain Agreement
10 Department of Health (DH) Information Management Services (IMS 3)
11 Ministry of Defence (MOD) Strategic Partner Framework Defence Core Network Services (DCNS01)
12 Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) ICT Managed Services Agreement (IS2003)

Far from finding examples of sharp practice, the review team found “examples to the contrary”. In some of the contracts, Atos was “working at risk” and going “beyond their contractual obligations to act in the client’s interests”.

“Specific examples include expediting change control notices at the client’s request in advance of formal approval, taking financial risk ahead of contract extensions and proactively supporting the redeployment of resource to assist in the avoidance of client cost. On one contract, a notice period for a number of major decommissioning events lapsed and Atos continued to deliver the services flexibly to the client’s requirements until the service could be safely decommissioned.”

Where Atos did not meet monthly performance targets, service penalties were incurred and charged to Atos. “It was evident that when operational performance fell short appropriate sanctions were applied.”


The Cabinet Office went on to say that Atos proactively and constructively engaged in the review and provided information as requested, “sometimes over and above their contractual commitments”.

The review team added,

“It is clear that Atos values its relationship as a supplier to the Crown; it has a comprehensive approach to the governance of all the contracts reviewed and the Atos leadership team shows commitment to its customers.

“In response to the PAC [Public Accounts Committee] hearing Atos has undertaken a number of initiatives to address PAC’s concerns.

“The Atos corporate programme ‘Client at the Heart’ aims to deepen the client-focussed culture within the organisation by embedding a set of values and action plans to deliver improved service for each contract they run, including all government contracts.

“In addition, whilst employees have always been recognised for achievement in quantitative and qualitative objectives, financial targets vary but typically account for only a small proportion of total reward packages.

“We see this as evidence that Atos client executives are incentivised to provide the appropriate professional support.”

An Atos spokesman told civilserviceworld that the company was “proud to be a trusted supplier” and had welcomed the review as an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of its services.

“We are pleased that the Cabinet Office has concluded that we deliver the appropriate level of professional support to our government clients,” he said.


It’s clear that Atos deserves credit for going beyond the call of duty on some contracts. It is also clear that those departmental officials the Cabinet Office spoke to as part of the review were happy with Atos.

What’s not so clear is the extent to which civil servants in general are in a position to know how well their major IT suppliers are performing.

Evidence from National Audit Office reports is that departments may not always have comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information – and enough staff time – to give sound judgements on how well a major IT supplier is performing on a complex contract.

Indeed the National Audit Office can be scathing about the quality of contract management within departments.

In 2013 the Audit Office, in its report “Universal Credit: early progress” identified a series of astonishing failings that, taken together,  suggested that the DWP had little understanding of what its major IT suppliers were charging for, or why, let alone what their performance was like.

The DWP is the largest central government department – which leaves one to wonder whether some other departments, which have smaller budgets and fewer staff, are better or worse off in terms of understanding their IT contracts.

These were some of the contract management weaknesses at the DWP as identified by the National Audit Office in 2013:

  • Over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.
  • Inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.
  • Weak contractual relationships with supplier
  • The Department did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account.
  • Limited line of sight on cost of delivery, in particular between expenditure incurred and progress made in delivering outputs.
  • Poorly managed and documented financial governance, including for delegated financial authorities and approvals; for example 94 per cent of spending was approved by just four people but there is limited evidence that this was reviewed and challenged.
  • Limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.
  • Insufficient review of contractor performance before making payments – on average six project leads were given three days to check 1,500 individual timesheets, with payments only stopped if a challenge was raised.
  • Ministers had insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them.
  • Insufficient challenge of supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts because the programme team did not fully understand the assumptions driving changes.

The Cabinet Office, in its review of Atos, found “inconsistencies” in departmental compliance with guidelines on contract management. It said,

“Where the evidence suggests that contract management is inconsistent [with National Audit Office guidelines on contract management] the Cabinet Office is discussing improvements with the contract owners in the Departments concerned.”

Praise where praise is due and Atos may well be a good – and perhaps outstanding – IT supplier to central government.

But if departments don’t have enough solid information on how well their major IT suppliers are performing, to what extent is any Cabinet Office statement praising an IT supplier likely to be a hopeful panegyric, based on what officials in departments believe they are expected to say?

Cabinet Office statement on Atos to the Public Accounts Committee – 8 September 2016

Public Accounts Committee report on Atos and the General Practice Extraction Service – December 2015


Pay-for-a-GP service due for national roll-out

By Tony Collins

GPs have mixed views on a new service that allows paying patients to book a private GP appointment online.

People can use the “Doctaly” website to choose a GP and book a 15-minute appointment slot, paying from £39.99 to £69.99 depending on the time and day of the week, GP magazine Pulse reports today (16 September 2016).

The Doctaly website says:

“Why wait for an appointment? See a private GP near you today, from £39.99.” People can specify the appointment type requested, and have the option of giving their postcode.

The booking process requires the patient to confirm that they are not registered with the particular GP practice they choose.

Patients are also advised that Doctaly does not provide emergency care, and that patients needing care for psychological problems or long-term condition management are better off going to their regular GP who understands their medical history.

After a Doctaly consultation, the GP will give the patient a printed copy of the consultation notes. It’s up to the patient to decide whether to share the information with their NHS GP.

The new service has caused a stir among GPs in general, judging by the comments on Pulse’s website.  Some GPs have welcomed the service, in part because it will enable them to earn extra money in their spare time. They point out that consultants who work for the NHS and see paying patients privately have long had to juggle NHS and private appointments.

Other GPs say the service will destabilise the NHS, and may make it harder for non-paying patients to see their GP. They call the new service “queue-jumping”.

Doctaly has been running for the past month at ten practices in Barnet and Enfield, with around 50 GPs signed up to offer appointments at various times, reports Pulse. The new service doesn’t employ any GPs. Instead GPs give Doctaly a list of their available appointments.

Company founder Ben Teichman told Pulse that the service should “help drive queues down in surgeries and also take traffic away from A&E”.

Success of the national roll-out will depend to a large extent on how many GPs register appointments with the service. At the moment it’s unclear how much GP support the service will get.