The House of Lords will today hear calls to develop stronger commissioning capacity in the civil service to avoid problems in major government IT projects.
The Lords will examine projects including the NHS’s £12.4bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT), the catastrophic Rural Payments Agency system and the plans for a national identity register to accompany the controversial ID card scheme, in a debate initiated by Conservative backbench peer Lord Lucas.
Government chief whip Lord Davies of Oldham is set to reply for the government. Lord Warner, until recently the health minister in change of NPfIT, is also expected to speak in the debate, although current minister Lord Hunt will not.
Speaking before the debate, Lord Lucas said he would focus on what could be done to avoid problems with major public sector IT programmes in future, looking particularly at the need to increase civil servants’ capacity to commission systems that successfully met policy objectives.
“We need to develop a policy delivery stream within the civil service.... with different talents to the traditional policy creation side of the civil service,” he said.
Such civil servants could “really focus on the users of the systems and have a personal stake in the success of the systems”, he added. IT projects’ “quality, innovation and maintenance should be driven by users”.
Lord Lucas will propose that a special unit be set up within the Treasury to lead work on major IT programmes and help central government departments “get round the technical problems they keep seeming to fall over”.
The group of expert commissioners should have a grasp of the technical issues involved in major programmes “so it doesn’t get misled by inexperienced consultants or by contractors”, he said.
The backbench peer will also call for procurement skills in the civil service to be ramped up. At present, government procurement is “a backwater staffed by people going nowhere”, while private sector firms have “highly skilled, well paid, highly valued” procurement specialists, he said.
Earl Howe, the Conservatives’ health spokesperson in the Lords, will focus on NPfIT. Speaking ahead of the debate, he said he would raise the findings of the Commons public accounts committee with the Lords.
In April, the MPs warned that four years into the programme, there was still uncertainty “about the costs of the Programme for the local NHS and the value of the benefits it should achieve”.
Earl Howe said he would also question the design of the system and whether “as I think, it is overambitious”.
He added: “The technical complexity is immense. Is it worth the money?” It was “all very well having a local electronic patient record”, but Earl Howe questioned the need for the national data “spine” holding patient records. There were already protocols to cover treatment of patients outside their usual locality, he pointed out.
The Conservative health spokesperson said he would also touch on the difficulties NPfIT has had with suppliers, following Accenture’s pull-out as a lead contractor and the recent tensionbetween key contractor CSC and troubled software supplier iSoft.