NHS What next for government IT projects?

The NHS looks set to remain at the heart of government IT projects

The government has been making strides in recent years to at least attempt to utilise more technology in its databases and general nationwide schemes, although many never make it past the gate. Of course, the immediate benefit to these schemes is the opening of many IT jobs, which would help the troubling employment market right now. Let’s take a quick look at some of the planned government IT projects…

One of the biggest technology schemes being discussed right now is that of the NHS, where we will be accessing our records and making appointments online, called HealthSpace. Aside from making appointments and reading our records, we would also be able to check test results, all of which health secretary Andrew Lansley says will give patients more power.

The idea of having personal and sensitive medical information online may make some balk, but it wouldn’t be out of keeping with having all our banking, credit and personal information online as we already do. So in that regard, this is not a new form of web development; essentially our lives are already online, and this is just one more way to make it easier for us to get things done. Especially so with recent changes to GP offices, where we can only make an appointment on the day itself or two weeks in advance; being able to book online will make things far easier, as will being able to check test results rather than wait indefinitely for an appointment.

While this move shows spending and initiative from the government, it doesn’t all appear to be that way, as it was recently reported that as of April this year, the coalition has made it policy to cap IT contracts at £100 million. This may be seen to stifle development, but it will probably be more to stop a repeat of the fiasco and money-drain of the Siemens Passport plan.

The idea of the policy is to significantly reduce the delivery risk of high value projects using ICT, and to have better value for money in terms of investment. This doesn’t mean that IT projects are now confined to small-scale opportunities, however; government services that are critical or in the interests of national security are exempt from the £100 million cap, as are projects that will have an overall increase in cost to the taxpayer, are more likely to fail or have an increased security risk if they do not exceed the contract limit.

What may be particularly surprising on this area of government IT projects is that the government has decided to shut the door and closed proprietary software, opting instead for open-source projects. The reason for this is quite simple: by relying on proprietary software, the government is forced into dealing with the controlling company, which can set its own price for negotiation. By utilising open-source software instead, costs can be far lower, and technology can be reused. The key philosophy to open-source software is that the code is open and accessible by anyone, so the government can have diverse suppliers – which can also mean improvements in services, as multiple companies will be providing them.

Moving to open-source software actually shows modernity to the government, as there is a lingering, albeit false, idea that open-source is intrinsically more vulnerable to attack than proprietary software. By kicking the feet out from under closed software and opting instead for open-source, the government is showing that it knows this to be false and knows how to employ open-source software in a manageable way. The end result for the public should be improved services with a lower burden on taxpayers, which we can all welcome.