Regulation

Government Reviews Atos Contracts After Another IT Failure

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Atos Government Contracts Worth £500m Face Review Following Latest Project Failure

The Cabinet Office has confirmed it will accept a recommended review of more than £500 million worth of major central government contracts provided by outsourcing firm Atos, following the latest round of criticism levelled at the company.

The decision follows criticism by the National Audit Office (NAO) of Atos’ role in the development of an IT system for the extraction of data from GP practice systems.

 

Disability test controversy

Atos HQ FranceThe NAO’s inquiry itself comes on the heels of years of condemnations of Atos for its role in a number of government projects.

Atos stepped down from its role in evaluating people for disability benefits a year early due to charges that its procedures were inaccurate and degrading for those assessed.

MPs on the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reviewing the NAO’s inquiry into the project’s failure found that Atos, which was contracted to supply a central part of the system, “did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer” and “appears to have acted solely with its own short-term best interests in mind”.

The cost of the system rose from £14m to £40m during the planning and procureent phase, and continues to rise, according to a report by The Guardian.

The PAC recommended the Cabinet Office to review Atos’ central government contracts and to see that the causes of the project’s failure “are disseminated widely to reinforce the steps that need to be taken to avoid such mistakes being repeated again”.

Atos said it was one of seven companies working on the project and as such was unable to have a broad view of the undertaking.

Review to go ahead

The Cabinet Office confirmed that it plans to go ahead with the PAC’s recommended review.

“In line with the PAC’s recommendation the Cabinet Office is undertaking a review of all current Atos contracts with central government with an annual spend over £10m,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

Atos, based in Bezons, France, says it currently has contracts with the NHS and NHS Scotland, the Home Office, the Welsh government, the Ministry of Defence, HM Revenue and Customs, the Home Office, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, National Savings and Investments (NS&I, formerly the Post Office Savings Bank).

The company highlighted its strong track record with central government.

“We look forward to working with the Cabinet Office with whom we have a transparent and open relationship and we look forward to maintaining our green rating for delivery across Whitehall,” Atos stated.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson called on the government to provide more public accountability into government contracts provided by public companies, opening them up to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Transparency

“Until private providers of taxpayer-funded services are subject to the same transparency and accountability rules as their public counterparts, whatever steps the Cabinet Office takes to improve services are bound to fail,” he said.

Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government, said the review suggests the government may need to take stronger action going forward in overseeing essential services provided by private companies.

“As part of its drive to save money, (the government) now relies on outside providers to deliver essential public services, despite repeated problems with managing outsourced services,” Thornton stated. “So while it is unusual to recommend a review into all contracts with a single provider, it isn’t unheard of – and we might expect more of this in future.”

Atos’ Healthcare arm conducted the Work Capability Assessment test for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) from 2008 until March of last year, when it stepped down a year early following criticism that its tests were inhumane and inaccurate.

In 2012, Atos technology supplied to the Home Office used for border control at Heathrow Airport broke down, forcing hundreds to queue at the UK Border Agency offices in Croydon.

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