Was this NHS IT tender a stitch-up?

An IT supplier has complained of an NHS tender being a “stitch-up”. The complaint of Maracis, a healthcare software supplier, may draw attention to the mixed feelings that buyers and suppliers have towards EC tendering rules. Should...

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An IT supplier has complained of an NHS tender being a “stitch-up”.

The complaint of Maracis, a healthcare software supplier, may draw attention to the mixed feelings that buyers and suppliers have towards EC tendering rules. Should the rules be followed diligently or deftly side-stepped?

Maracis has written to its local Beckenham MP, Robert Stewart, claiming that Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust had already chosen its solution provider before it issued an invitation to tender. 

Maracis says that the Hertfordshire trust’s pre-decision is underlined by the fact that it allowed only two weeks for responses from bidders not the usual four to six weeks. There has been a "stitch-up” says Maracis in its letter, which it has asked to be passed onto Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health.  

Maracis has also complained to the "Feedback" service of the Cabinet Office’s Office of Government Commerce.

I have put the claims to Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, and asked it further questions (below) but the Trust has made no comment. 

Maracis says it had invested in the bidding process when it discovered a strategy document  issued by Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust. The document made clear the Trust's intention to buy the “ RiO" mental health system. 

How Trust strategy document revealed plan to buy "RiO" system 

The document was headed “Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust APR Strategy Document”. 

It said: 

"Implementation of RIO -  Spend 2010/11 - £990,000."

The Trust's strategy document also said:

"The RIO system will support the development of new models of care, single access points and streamlined care pathways by providing the trust with more flexibility regarding the use of its information and data networks. 

“The RIO system will also allow improvements in the way the Trust records activity data. This will support improved data quality and performance reporting …”

Trust's EC tendering document - with no mention of "RiO" 

There was no hint of this intention to buy RiO when the Trust’s agent, in July 2010, issued an invitation to tender for a “Comprehensive Integrated mental health patient management and clinical information system”. 

The tender said the award of a contract will be based on the “most economically advantageous tender in terms of the criteria stated in the specifications, in the invitation to tender or to negotiate or in the descriptive document”.  

It added that short listed bidders would be asked to present their proposals on 17 September 2010.

The tender sought a solution capable of replacing all current patient management, clinical noting, statutory reporting and mental health act administration functionality. The solution may include hardware, application software and/or utility system software, which may be delivered in whole or part by a managed service arrangement. 

“The solution may also include interfaces to other information systems within the Authority, within local partner organisations, and National Services provided by NHS Connecting for Health … The successful supplier will be expected to obtain and maintain NPfIT [National Programme for IT] alignment.”

Hertfordshire said in the tender document that it expected “full implementation of the solution to the level of existing functionality should be completed within six months”.
 
Questions I've asked Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust 

I put it to the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust that NHS trusts face difficulties when they want a particular product but have been advised that they need to go to tender under EU regulations. 

I asked:
 
- What else can trusts do when they want to buy a particular product but have to go out to open tender? 
- Why has the partnership allowed only two weeks for a response? 
- Does the trust accept that if the NHS don’t encourage genuine open competition and focuses instead on a single main IT product in, say, mental health, it may contribute to the destruction of other suppliers, which may ultimately eliminate competition and push up prices to the NHS? 

Pros and cons of EC tendering rules 

Buyers and suppliers have mixed views on EC tendering rules. The pros:

- They enable buyers to see what is available on the open market and at what prices. This keeps open competition healthy.
- The process of choosing the best supplier with the best product makes it less likely a buyer will end up with a poor system that ends up as a disastrous implementation. 
- The Office of Government Commerce says that the “EU rules reflect and reinforce the value-for-money focus of the government’s procurement policy”

The Cons:

- Public sector organisations waste time and money going through a cumbersome EU process, which can take up to 18 months to complete, when they sometimes already know what they want to buy.
- The way bids are scored can mean that organisations end up buying the product they don’t want.
- If a user organisation has a system it’s happy with, and wants to keep and enhance, why would it want to go through the needless expense of an EC tendering, rather than simply renew the contract?
- EC tendering rules deter smaller suppliers of innovative software from bidding for public sector contracts - even though innovative software, when combined with changes in business processes, could save huge sums. The high costs of submitting to an EC tendering process favour the larger systems integrators - companies that may not be genuinely innovative or have the most useful products.

My comment:

It appears to me that some organisations in the public sector will simply ignore EC tendering rules in the hope that nobody will notice; and usually nobody does. 

But if EC procurement rules didn’t exist the NHS could, say, continue to buy, without impediment, nothing but RiO as its main mental health system. Then other suppliers of mental health systems may cease to exist and the suppliers of RiO could in theory charge what they liked.  

In short many in the user or supplier communities simultaneously welcome and despise EC tendering rules. 

I await a response from Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to my questions.
 
Update (3 September 2010): Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust says it will give me a response "next week".
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