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UK health department contracts 'critical friend' for £480m data platform

As IT spending drops below promised billions, there's always room for those offering the right kind of feedback

In response to the widespread controversy surrounding the UK health department's attempt to buy a Federated Data Platform (FDP) – a competition that incumbent supplier Palantir considers a "must-win" – NHS England has reached for a "critical friend."

Seemingly unable to process criticism from campaign groups, former NHS professionals, and even the health service's own National Data Guardian, the non-departmental government body has contracted Qi Consulting Limited to "provide constructive feedback and challenge on programme plans and products being developed," according to a contract notice published this week.

In January, NHS England and NHS Improvement launched the competition for a new £480 million ($580 million) data platform which promised to help "rapidly scale and share innovative solutions that directly addresses the challenges most pressing for the NHS."

But the history of the procurement has not been universally happy. In November, US spy-tech firm Palantir won a £23 million ($28 million) contract without competition to extend its work on the platform. The deal, which was extended without competition in January, was subject to threats of judicial review, after which the NHS agreed not to extend it without public consultation.

Legal campaigners at Foxglove said the group and its partners at Just Treatment, the Doctors Association UK, and the National Pensioners Convention have serious concerns about the FDP.

The UK's family doctors' conference has called for greater scrutiny of bidders on the FDP contract to ensure they have a positive track record on security, privacy and ethics. In November last year, the Department for Health and Social Care's own National Data Guardian warned the project "must avoid common pitfalls around trust and transparency that have frustrated previous initiatives in this area."

But none of that criticism and concern has seemingly been enough for NHS England. To get the right kind of "friendly" criticism, it has contracted Qi Consulting and – as a measure of the relative value it places on such feedback – awarded the company a deal worth £35,640.

The consultancy can look forward to awkward lunchtime chats with fellow consultants also contracted to NHS England to help with its data strategy.

Global firm McKinsey & Company won a £1 million ($1.2 million) deal to "design the operating model for Data and Analytics in the newly merged NHS England organisation" which began last December and ends on March 31.

The dire state of NHS technology was keenly demonstrated by a report into the catastrophic failure at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust which found the complexity associated with 371 legacy IT systems meant it took two months to completely recover services.

But while NHS England is finding the money to spend on tech consultants – and the planned FDP – getting cash for the actual technology that runs the health service on the ground is more of a challenge.

NHS England's technology spending is set to dip below £1 billion after a significant amount of cash was diverted elsewhere, according to specialist NHS publication the HSJ. The journal said tech funding was worth less than half of the £2.1 billion ($2.5 billion) earmarked in the 2021 Autumn Spending Review. ®

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