Fiasco that exposed ethical gulf: Tim Kelsey looks at the background to a hugely expensive NHS embarrassment

THE REGIONAL Information Systems Plan (RISP) was the most adventurous computer scheme in the history of the NHS. It was a visionary idea: to put computer terminals on every hospital ward and in every office and integrate all information across a swathe of southern England.

But mismanagement, misguided enthusiasm and sharp commercial practice combined to make it one of the biggest health service embarrassments in recent years, and has left the reputation of Wessex Regional Health Authority in tatters. RISP was supposed to be proof that private sector business disciplines can be brought to bear in the public sector and lead to a more efficient, and cost effective service. It was a monumental white elephant and it exposed the ethical gulf between private business and the public sector.

The report, published yesterday by the Public Accounts Committee, was prompted by a joint investigation published earlier this year by the Independent and Computer Weekly. Our inquiries revealed the existence of two lengthy confidential reports by the district auditor which criticised senior managers within the authority, including the chairman Sir Robin Buchanan, for allowing the project to last so long and be so poorly managed. The auditor questioned the role played by Britain's largest computer consultancy, Andersen Consulting, in winning one contract. He also identified conflicts of interests between Wessex and its other contractors.

The Regional Information Systems Plan was born in 1983 when the idea for the project was developed by Wessex staff working with consultants from Arthur Andersen (the company later turned its consultancy division into a separate operation called Andersen Consulting) working with Wessex RHA.

By May 1984, RISP had been adopted by the authority. Invitations to tender for the first part of the contract were issued in 1985 and Andersen went on to win it.

Their tactics in doing so were described as 'disturbing' by the district auditor. He noted that Wessex had decided in favour of another contractor, and that once this was known, authority executives were subjected to intensive lobbying on behalf of Andersen to reconsider.

Lord Patrick Jenkin, then an MP and a business adviser to Andersen, telephoned the then chairman of the authority, Sir Bryan Thwaites, to recommend Andersen's bid. Lord Jenkin, who said that he acted in good faith, had appointed Sir Bryan, when Secretary of State for Health.

In 1986, Andersen's consultants accompanied executives from Wessex who went to the US to evaluate another contractor's products. The PAC said yesterday it was 'clearly wrong for somebody who is tendering for NHS business also to be advising the NHS as their consultant'.

By 1988, when Sir Robin Buchanan was appointed chairman, it was clear that RISP was in trouble. Original cost estimates of pounds 29m had hugely inflated. If it had been abandoned at the time, at least pounds 8m would have been saved. Instead, Wessex commissioned a computer company called CSL to manage its information systems in what was effectively an attempt at privatisation.

CSL set up a company called Wessex Integrated Systems which took over all computer services in the health authority. The first contract with WIS was signed in 1988, shortly after Sir Robin's arrival. Sir Robin told the Public Accounts Committee that he had no involvement in this first contract. However, a letter was leaked to the Independent which showed that he did have some detailed knowledge of its terms and conditions.

By October 1989, only three of the authority's nine districts were still prepared to implement RISP. Sir Robin then negotiated the second contract. Far from setting tougher conditions, it stated that the company would be paid 'whether (or not) there was work for them to do'.

Sir Robin was also responsible for one of the more disturbing conflicts of interest. Shortly after becoming chairman, he approached IBM to ask it to supply a project manager to run the RISP. IBM was one of the biggest suppliers to the authority and was negotiating a contract to supply a new mainframe.

Shortly afterwards the authority bought an IBM mainframe at up to pounds 1m more than it should have paid.

The project was finally abandoned in mid-1990 after the appointment of Ken Jarrold as regional general manager. The total that had been spent was not less than pounds 43m, and may have been more than pounds 63m. No one has been prosecuted, disciplined or fined.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform