Comment: Putting PPARS into perspective

1 Nov 2005

Nothing turns the mainstream media’s attention to technology as quickly as a good disaster story. And when Enda Kenny TD began informing anyone who would listen about what’s been portrayed as the mother of all IT muck ups, the health service Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems (PPARS) project, they started behaving like kids let loose in a sweet shop.

As someone who wrote extensively about the Deloitte and SAP deployment last year it was interesting to see how the coverage soon exhausted the slender facts and resorted to blithering nonsense. On the day the story broke RTÉ’s Morning Ireland was followed by the Pat Kenny Show, each presenter more animated than the next about such a monumental waste of taxpayers money.

They talked incessantly about how a “computer system” wasn’t doing what it was supposed to, almost as if some artificial intelligence in the bowels of the Health Service Executive (HSE) had adopted HAL’s voice from 2001 and talked directly to the health minister in those menacing anodyne tones: “I’m sorry Mary, I can’t let you do that”.

The truth, of course, is a lot more boring and complicated. By the time RTÉ got to its lunchtime news, preceded by an airtime silence that the sharp-as-a-razor presenter attributed to a computer system glitch, the Government was getting its defence in order. No word from Deloitte, the consultant taking most of the flak for apparently bagging millions for something that didn’t work, but it had clearly been briefing someone.

Health Minister Mary Harney TD began to offer a counter argument by trying to explain the complexity of the project, an approach that would be adopted by the Taoiseach in the next Dáil debate.

A year before, when I had interviewed Tony Reilly, national projects director at HeBe (when the Health Boards Executive still existed) at the time, I had heard some of the same things.

“It’s a business transformation project more than an IT project,” he had told me. “The change management is a huge component of the overall work both on financials and human resources (HR). People think it’s a basic HR record but the difficult part is gathering data on organisation structure and positions, and gathering details on staff rosters and work schedules. These are very detailed and complex operations.”

David Hearn, Deloitte’s partner in charge of the project, shared this view: “It is [HeBe] not approaching these projects as being pure technology implementations. From day one it was well recognised that it was significantly about changing people and processes, and doing things better to achieve value for money.” This touches on what is the real crux of the problem. Compared to other countries the Irish health service has had a long history of under-investment in IT and process change. To make matters worse, there was a dogfight over what funding there was available. The existing health boards are a labyrinth of different systems and cultures, silos that are sometimes intent on retaining their own power base despite the attempts of the HSE (and HeBe before it) to move towards a single more centralised infrastructure.

The PPARS and Financial Information Systems Project were undertaken at a time when the health service was going to undergo its most radical restructuring for 30 years, or as Reilly put it: “We’re trying to design a national infrastructure for a future organisation that has yet to be firmed up.” Hearn had no illusions about the scale of the project: “The significant under-investment in IT down the years is the biggest challenge. It is the first time they have attempted a national standard system. And reform presents additional problems.”

He went on to describe the old systems: “There are nearly 100,000 employees being paid and managed from an HR point of view through a variety of systems that are not all compatible. In some cases it’s very manual; in many cases there are no systems at all.” He also hinted at the challenges for a consultant working with the public as opposed to the private sector: “It’s not like it would be in a PLC. A large multinational can just tell its people that there’s a standard model to follow and do it. In the publics sector it’s more collaborative and by agreement.”

Hearn summed it up: “The big challenge is not just about putting in a computer system; it’s changing the business processes using a computer system to enable that change.” None of this is intended to encourage sympathy for the parties involved. No one has written as extensively on the dangers of overdependence on consultants in the public sector than Silicon Republic (see last month’s Syl O’Connor column in Digital Ireland), but it’s time to counter some of the lazy hysteria that filled up so much airtime and newspaper columns and look at the real issues.

The need to re-evaluate the public sector approach to major modernisation projects is long overdue. It’s a process that the UK is already going through and it’s now under way in Ireland after the Taoiseach announced plans to introduce new spending controls (see separate story). But this is just scratching the surface of a problem that isn’t going to go away. Someone somewhere in the bowels of the Government must be wondering what impact decentralisation will have on all of this, because one school of thought thinks consultants are going to have a field day. The majority of the Government’s internal IT employees are reluctant to move to new locations, so no prizes for guessing who will be brought in to fill the gaps.

There are no easy solutions to the challenges posed when trying to modernise monolithic state organisations. But now, at least, everybody knows it. Civil servants who worked under the adage that ‘you can’t go wrong buying from a big global company’ may have to learn to live without that safety net.

By Ian Campbell