FireControl – should PA Consulting share some responsibility for what happened?

By Tony Collins

The defence and aerospace supplier EADS is widely regarded as the main supplier of the FireControl project which was cancelled in December 2010, with wasted costs of at least £469m.

But did the project have too many consultants, some of whom were  accountability-free? The question is raised by report published today on FireControl by the National Audit Office.

Says the report:

 “The implementation of FiReControl was heavily reliant on consultants and interim staff, who contributed around half the Department’s [for Communities and Local Government] project team at a cost of £68.6m, over three-quarters of the total spend on the national team supporting the project.

“PA Consulting was contracted to provide consultancy services at a cost of £42m to the end of March 2011. Its staff held key positions throughout the project, including the Project Manager, one of only two senior members of the team who remained on the project throughout its duration.

“Despite the Department’s reliance on consultants, there was no framework to assess their performance until the end of 2008, when the National Audit Office recommended that the Department’s contracts with consultants should include mechanisms to enable regular objective monitoring of performance, such as performance indicators and key milestones.

“Without such mechanisms, the Department was unable to determine whether or not the services provided offered value for money.

“A review of the FiReControl project by the Office of Government Commerce in 2008 similarly found that some consultants in key management roles did not have a level of authority matching their responsibilities, which led to decisions being referred to others.

“Other consultants were found to hold a disproportionate (and accountability-free) amount of authority. In response, the Department reviewed its use of consultants and interims within FiReControl and reduced the number employed, leading to a fall of 24% in consultancy costs between 2008-09 and 2009-10, and a further fall of 26 per cent in the following year.”

The failure of the FireControl project – and many other central government IT-based programmes dating back decades – shows the need for independent challenge as projects progress or otherwise.

Gateway reviews are independent reports on the state of a project but they appear to be ignored if they’re too critical, as in the cases of FireControl and the Rural Payments Agency’s Single Payment Scheme; and the Gateway review reports are secret – even today – so there is no outside pressure on departments to act on them.

What’s to be welcomed is the intervention of the Cabinet Office in major projects. FireControl systems could have been delivered. They could have worked. But there were too many missed deadlines and continuing uncertainties, as the NAO points out in today’s report.

The Cabinet Office’s major Projects Review Group, as it was then, said the FireControl contract should be ended – and it was a few months later, amicably, in December 2010.

All credit to the NAO for naming PA Consulting, as well as the main supplier EADS.

NAO report on FireControl.

What FireControl and NPfIT have in common.

FireControl disaster blasted by unions

4 responses to “FireControl – should PA Consulting share some responsibility for what happened?

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  4. PA Consulting and DCLG
    Tony reports above on the failure of DCLG’s FIReControl project, lost with all hands despite the assistance of PA Consulting. FIReControl is not the only instance of the efficacy of PA’s involvement with government projects.

    PA Consulting and the Home Office
    Like FIReControl, the NIS failed completely and at great cost to the taxpayer.

    The NIS was the National Identity Service and was meant to issue us all ID cards and enrol us all on the National Identity Register (NIR). The ID card, the person and the entry on the NIR were all meant to be bound together by biometrics, specifically fingerprints and facial geometry. The NIS depended on these biometrics being reliable. No biometrics, no NIS. Biometrics were crucial.

    PA Consulting published a paper dated 24 November 2004 with a diagram illustrating their belief that the biometrics sales pitch is mostly hype, please see p.3, Biometrics – Is that really you?.

    Just because the whole project depended on hype, that didn’t stop PA from working on the NIS, and on 14 July 2005, Accountancy Age published PA Consulting bill for ID cards to bust £18m estimate:

    Accountancy Age’s sister publication Management Consultancy revealed that £12m of taxpayer’s money has already been spent on PA out of a total spend so far of £17m …

    … according to a Home Office spokesman. ‘These costs have never been treated by the Home Office as the contract value, so the contract cannot overrun …’

    Information disclosed to Management Consultancy under the Freedom of Information Act showed the ‘average daily cost for each consultant on the programme was £1,093’. It was also disclosed that at least 62 consultants are working alongside 43 civil servants and one secondee. PA Consulting is working on design, feasibilty, and procurement for the Home Office. The firm refused to comment.

    You can see why the NAO are worried about the preponderance of consultants (62) over permanent staff (43). And why they’re worried about accountability – PA couldn’t go over budget … because there was no budget to go over.

    That was the situation back in July 2005. Five-and-a-half years later, the Identity cards Act was repealed, there were no ID cards and Damian Green was filmed feeding the NIR into an industrial shredder along with the Home Office’s credibility.

    For over a thousand pounds a day each, PA’s consultants had achieved precisely nothing. Another FIReControl.

    There was a little hiccough in between. On 10 September 2008, the Daily Telegraph published Strip data blunder firm of all its Government contracts, Jacqui Smith told:

    PA Consulting lost [a] memory stick containing the details of … 84,000 prisoners, as well as another 30,000 offenders on the police national computer over a fortnight ago.

    On Wednesday Home Secretary Jacqui Smith cancelled PA Consulting’s three year contract worth £1.5 million, and said that six other contracts with the Home Office worth £8.5 million were under review.

    Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for the company to lose all its contracts, including one on the controversial identity card scheme, which were worth more than £240 million between 2004 and 2007.

    ’I welcome the move to remove PA Consulting from their current research work on the project this loss relates to and call for consistency in this decision,’ he said. ‘This firm obviously has some serious procedural failures and therefore should not hold any contracts for any Government work.

    ’This means that PA Consulting should have their contract to work on the ID card scheme removed immediately.’

    Strong words. But only from a politician. So they don’t count. Somehow, the Home Office and PA Consulting overcame the hiccough, PA once again overcame its reservations about biometrics and today their website still happily says: Helping the UK Border Agency International Group to deliver a world-class biometric visa service:

    PA Consulting Group worked in partnership with the UK Border Agency [UKBA] and specialist technology vendors to deliver a global biometric visa service that provides an intuitive method of enrolment, secure messaging and automated delivery of results to the right decision makers. PA also managed a rapid procurement process which awarded global contracts to outsourced service providers for the collection of biometrics from visa applicants.

    PA played a fundamental role in successfully delivering the programme from concept to implementation, three months early and several million pounds under budget. The UK government is now able to collect biometrics from visa applicants in 133 countries and over 350 locations.

    That’s happy for PA. But not necessarily for the taxpayer. If PA did all this procurement and implementation, what did UKBA do? Why are we paying for UKBA? And if the biometrics aren’t reliable, as PA say, why are we paying to collect them at 350 locations in 133 countries?

    PA “awarded global contracts to outsourced service providers”. How good are they at doing that?

    Very good according to their press release, PA wins gold at the 2010 MCA awards:

    PA Consulting Group (PA) has won another prestigious Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Management Award for our work with the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). The win, in the Operational Performance in the Public Sector category, was announced at the ceremony in London on Thursday 29th April, adding to PA’s enviable collection of MCA trophies.

    The winning project involved working with the IPS to procure a new passport provider. This complex and high-profile project required a redesigned passport which met the new international regulations for travel documentation, with enhanced security features to keep ahead of the threat of counterfeiting and the capability to store additional biometric information.

    The team supported IPS and managed the £400m procurement process from start to finish. The process was completed four months earlier than scheduled and below budget. The quality and security of the passport exceeded expectations and the new passport service will generate savings in excess of £160 million (30% savings against the anticipated contract value) over the term of the contract.

    Kevin Sheehan, Director of Integrity and Security at the IPS, said of the project: “This procurement has delivered a fantastic outcome for IPS by delivering a superior passport at exceptional value for money. This project exemplifies the benefit of co-operative working through bringing together IPS’s world-class passport knowledge with PA’s procurement expertise.” Mark Brett added: “The MCA’s recognition of the quality and value of this complex project demonstrates PA’s expertise and leadership in public sector procurement.”

    But actually, they’re not very good, are they? Here they are, telling the world that they achieved a £160 million saving against the “anticipated contract value”. Message to the suppliers next time – you can safely put your prices up.

    Once again, here they are, promoting biometrics which they believe are mostly hype.

    And Mr Sheehan believes that PA’s work is “exceptional value for money”. He’s right. In May 1997, a ten-year adult passport cost £18. Today, it costs £77.50. That is more than three times what it should cost, if you adjust for inflation in between.

    Why are we paying more than three times the correct price for a passport? Why are we wasting money fingerprinting people in 133 countries? Why did we waste hundreds of millions of pounds on the NIS? Why don’t we have a FIReControl system?


    And the good news just goes on …

    PA Consulting and the Cabinet Office
    The Cabinet Office want to put all public services on the web, in a government cloud, as they say, the G-Cloud. How can people identify themselves on the web, and prove their entitlement to benefits, for example? Answer, by using an identity assurance service, IdA.

    IdA hasn’t been specified yet. The Cabinet Office have asked private sector volunteers to specify the service. And guess who has volunteered. That’s right. PA Consulting. The firm that worked for years on the NIS and, for our millions, we taxpayers have nothing to show for it.

    The PA story clearly isn’t over yet. The NAO can look forward to years more of naming PA Consulting in their reports. And PA can apparently look forward to years more of being paid a fortune, because being named in NAO reports or criticised by select committee chairment just doesn’t seem to matter.


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