The Department of Health is investigating how details of an FOI request it received into a possible conflict of interest involving IT suppliers came to be passed to one of the companies named in the inquiry.
The DOH is also looking at how the named supplier came to contact the person who placed the FOI request to discuss having the request withdrawn.
The FOI request sought information about activities between NHS Connecting for Health, which manages a network of IT contracts under the National Programme for IT, and two of its suppliers, one of which supplies consultancy and another software and solutions.
The FOI request was addressed to the Department of Health and Connecting for Health. Within three days of its submission, details were leaked to one of consultancies named in the request.
A senior representative of the consultancy then contacted the person who had submitted the FOI request and suggested he could “save face” by withdrawing the FOI request.
"It is quite possible to do that [withdraw the FOI request]” says the consultancy’s representative. “The choice is yours. I am not trying to influence you to do it.”
The FOI request came from an executive at a specialist IT supplier. When he asked the consultancy’s representative how to withdraw an FOI request, the representative replied: “I think you just send another email or whatever the form or process is - because I have never done it myself - and say that with reference to the previous request I would now like to withdraw it full stop it is as simple as that. I’ll leave it with you. It’s your choice at the end of the day ”
After this conversation, the FOI requester asked an official at the Department of Health whether the approach he’d had from the consultancy about withdrawing his FOI request constituted part of the Department’s formal response to the FOI.
She told him that the situation was unprecedented, and suggested he make a formal complaint.
The DH has since assured him that Connecting for Health is investigating and is “treating the issue seriously”.
The wider questions
The matter raises wider questions about whether some officials have too close an association with a small number of IT contractors. In some cases the Department of Health and Connecting for Health have associations with companies that employ former DH officials.
Under “framework” contracts, officials can give work to IT suppliers without a full and open competitive tender each time. The lack of openness means that "call-off" contracts within framework agreements can be awarded without external scrutiny, and individual consultants employed on long-term work at day rates.
The affair also raises the wider question of whether some firms stand to benefit from contracts to review and enhance the “ Healthspace” system that some in the NHS regard as a failure.
Healthspace gives patients online access to limited information in their health records once they have registered with the service.
An independent report by UCL last year found that the system was little used or liked by patients. Separate research this year by E-Health Insider found that Healthspace is used by only 60 patients a month - out of five million - to view their Summary Care Record online.
The Department of Health has indicated that it will invest further in the system, possibly to make health records available on social networks. It is unclear, though, whether there is widespread demand from patients to view their electronic records or manage their health online.
Part of the FOI request now in question asks for details of any advice from the consultancy that relates to social networks for healthcare, and whether this guidance could in any way have influenced the setup of a company that is run by a former DH official.
Department of Health responds
A spokesperson at the Department of Health told ComputerworldUK.com:
"As a matter of policy the Department does not comment on, or otherwise discuss Freedom of Information Act requests with third parties whilst they are in progress. To do so would raise obvious issues under the Data Protection Act.'
Asked whether Healthspace was being e nhanced, and whether this could benefit commercial enterprises that are in being or coming into being, the DH spokesperson said:
"Fundamental to transforming patient control and choice about their health is a secure patient portal which enables access to the Summary Care Record, communication with clinicians and other online transactions with the health service.
"We are at the beginning stages of an information revolution which will mean ensuring for patients that no decision is made about me without me.
"We expect a market to develop and in the meantime Healthspace will continue to provide patients with direct access to their SCR and secure communication with their clinician."
ComputerworldUK.com also asked the DH and CfH whether framework agreements, under which specific contracts are not always publicly advertised, and in which there may not be full and open competition each time, can encourage cosy relationships between suppliers and officials; and sometimes contracts under framework agreements are awarded to suppliers that employ in a senior capacity former DH officials.
The DH spokesperson said: "Framework agreements are a well established route to market that are used widely across the public sector and uphold the principles of fair, open and competitive procurement.
"Competition takes place at the outset to appoint suppliers to a framework, and a further "mini competition" is typically conducted within the framework to award a specific contract under the terms of a framework.’
Jon Baines - @bainesy1969 - points out that public authorities are expected to consult third parties where an FOI disclosure may prejudice their interests. But he says there was no need to disclose the identity of the FOI requester, which could be a breach of Data Protection Act.
[The DH cites the DPA as its reason for not commenting on the case.]