The government contracted a team of digital specialists to support the design and management of NHS Test and Trace services at an estimated cost of nearly £40,000 a day.
Recently published procurement documents reveal that, on 28 September, the Department of Health and Social Care entered into a six-month contract that had been directly awarded to transformation consultancy North Highland. The deal covered the provision of 35 developers, designers, researchers, analysts and project managers that would constitute a customer-experience team.
“The team will support our core test, trace and contain operation and… ensure that products and services delivered to the public are user-friendly intuitive, inclusive and trusted throughout the end-to-end customer journey,” the contract said. “The DHSC… has an urgent requirement to review the customer service design and product resources for Track and Trace.”
Each of the 35 staff listed in the contract was expected to provide about 50 days of work during the course of the deal. Based on this expectation, the £1.95m value of the contract equates to a cumulative total of £39,051 spent for each of those 50 days, or £1,115 per day for each of the 35 people.
The DHSC indicated that it had needed to hire outside help as it had been unable to find the required skills from within the civil service. But it added that it hoped to be able to assemble an internal team over the course of the contract with North Highland.
“Both the design and product roles are highly specialised digital, data and technology roles and NHS Test and Trace does not have sufficient staff with the necessary skills and experience to create the team without external support. It is NHS Test and Trace’s intent to recruit a team consisting of civil servants in the future,” the contract said. “We anticipate that this will take a minimum of six months and we therefore require… to use the resources provided under this contract as a short- to medium-term solution while we create a more permanent team to take over.”
The North Highland personnel were asked to work with existing staff across the Test and Trace programme, as well as NHS Digital and Public Health England.
The goal of establishing the customer experience (CX) team was “to ensure that work to create new services, or enhance existing ones, is done with the customer in mind, and [that] services are not built in isolation, but consider the end-to-end journey including overall coherence and consistency, as well as the wider issues of delivering positive customer experience”.
“Members of CX squads will work closely with the Test, Trace and Contain divisions to develop deep subject knowledge of the projects they are involved in and will use their experience to identify appropriate design solutions,” the contract added.
In February, Test and Trace head Dido Harding said that the scheme would be “scaling down” its use of consultants during the coming months.
According to the DHSC, this follows the addition of 650 civil servants to the programme in the last six months – of which 300 joined from outside government. The rest arrived from other departments or areas, or have joined via secondment or loan arrangements. The department added that further recruitment is ongoing and, in the meantime, its arrangements with providers of outsourced staff have been agreed at what it claimed are very competitive rates.
“Meeting the urgent challenges created by this global pandemic, including building the largest diagnostics network in British history from scratch, required the combined efforts and expertise of the public and private sector,” a DHSC spokesperson said. ““Consultants have been instrumental in ensuring the programme meets the NHS Test and Trace targets, and their specialist skills, enhance our strategic, policy and operational capacity, while ensuring we break the chains of transmission faster. Every pound spent is helping to save lives, but we have always been clear all contracts must achieve value for taxpayers and are based on good commercial judgement.”
The government entered into the deal with North Highland four days after the NHS Covid-19 app was released across England and Wales.
Headquartered in Atlanta, the transformation consultancy posted UK net profits of £1.9m on sales of £51.7m during the 2019 calendar year.
It has previously won seven-figure contracts from government customers including HM Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Justice and the Financial Conduct Authority.
Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.