The National Audit Office has begun reviewing aspects of the £2.3 billion NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) after having been contacted by a number of correspondents raising issues of concern.

A spokesperson for the NAO told E-Health Insider confirmed that the NAO has already established contact with the national programme and that high-level face-to-face meetings would follow soon. “We have already started speaking to the people running the project.”

They added: “The people we are talking to in the National programme are the people running the programme; it won’t be an intern who has been there three months.”

In a statement issued to E-Health insider, the NPfIT commented: "The NAO routinely explores areas to improve its understanding and knowledge of issues pertaining to the activities of Government departments or agencies.

“The National Programme for IT has been happy to work with the NAO to help increase its understanding of the National Programme and assist with their work. At this stage, the NAO is not gathering information for a full-scale value-for-money report that would go to Parliament."

The spokesperson stressed that such contact “was quite normal”, but said that details could not be given at this stage, about either the correspondence received, or the correspondents from whom it was sent. “It’s a rule we have to protect whistleblowers.”

News of the NAO’s involvement in reviewing the national programme was first reported in Computer Weekly this week, in a report which stated that the NAO would examine arrangements for managing high-level risks on the NPfIT and arrangements for gaining the local commitment of clinicians.

The report went on to say that the NAO planned to examine the "robustness of the business case" and funding requirements.

However, the NAO spokesperson contacted by E-Health Insider stressed: “What we are not doing at this stage is conducting a full Value for Money investigation.” In the eventuality that any review did lead to a full VFM investigation it could threaten the extremely tight procurement timetable.

All VFM investigations by the NAO are presented to the powerful Commons Public Accounts Committee, who would usually hold a hearing and call leading civil servants from the government department concerned. “Their recommendations and findings have to be answered point by point,” said the NAO spokesperson.

The most recent NAO investigation of a large public sector IT project that led to the publication of a VFM report was the highly critical January 2002 report into the Libra IT systems for magistrates courts.

Currently the five-stage Government Gateway Review process, run by the Treasury’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC), provides the main mechanism for external scrutiny of the NPfIT and its constituent parts. In a written statement the NPfIT reaffirmed that “All elements of the National Programme for IT are subject to OGC Gateway reviews…”

The most critical stage of the Gateway Review process facing the NPfIT is Gateway 3 where the actual investment decision is made, which then enables contract award and subsequent implementation.

To date Integrated Care Records Service (ICRS), e-booking and the N3 replacement of NHSnet programmes have all completed OGC Gateway two; while the NHSmail programme has completed OGC Gateway four. “The electronic transfer of prescriptions and primary care programmes will shortly have their first Gateway reviews,” stated the NPfIT.

Link: Overview of the OGC Gateway Review Process