Two vital contracts, covering technical and IT standards, and management of the National Information Programme, have been awarded to external consultancy firms who are not specialists in healthcare IT.

ASE Consulting and computer services firm Xansa have been awarded a contract by the National Programme Office to establish a new ‘design authority’ for the National Information Programme.

E-Health Insider has learned that all aspects of specifying technical and IT standards, and business architecture will be transferred from the NHSIA to the new agency, under a short-term contract awarded in December. The initial contract is understood to be worth £600,000.

The new agency will handle specifications and design, build and operational requirements, and be charged with ensuring that IT supports NHS business requirements.

ASE Consulting are understood to already have begun work on developing a technical and business architecture to support the delivery of the national IT programme.

A DoH spokesperson told EHI: "Anything to do with technical standards and IT standards will transfer across from the NHSIA to the new design authority." The spokesperson was unable, however, to confirm whether NHSIA staff would be transferred to the new design authority.

In a second deal WS Atkins, best known for its involvement in NHS and transport PFI projects, has been awarded the key contract to establish the ‘Project Support Office’ for the National Programme.

This new Project Support Office is expected to be the main organisation for monitoring and supporting delivery of the national programme. Based in Leeds, the Project Support Office replaces the NHS Programme Executive Group established last year.

E-Health Insider has also learned that a Chief Operating Officer for the Project Support Office is expected to be announced shortly, with up to six further senior appointments expected to follow by April.

"WS Atkins has been awarded a short-term contract to set up a Project Support Office, a recruitment process is underway and staff will be in place by April," said the DoH spokesperson.

At this stage it is unclear what the relationship of the new Project Support Office will be to the NHSIA, Information Policy Unit, or local IT leads in strategic health authorities, trusts and PCTs.

WS Atkins is involved in NHS PFI projects at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester and Southern General Hospital, Glasgow. The company describes itself as provider of ‘professional, technologically based consultancy and support services’.

However, in October 2002 Computing reported that the firm had failed to demonstrate these skills in managing its own IT developments when it blamed up to £30m of a £120m financial shortfall on difficulties it suffered through the in-house management of a project to install a new billing and payroll system.

WS Atkins is currently best known for its involvement in the troubled part-privatisation (public-private partnership) of London Underground, where it is part of the Metronet consortium bidding for several London Underground lines.

ASE Consulting have worked for a range of government departments, including establishing comparable design authorities. Past clients include the Lord Chancellor’s department and the Department of Trade and Industry.