By Tony Collins
A report published today by the Public Accounts Committee on the £469m Firecontrol project reads much like its others on government IT-enabled project disasters.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the Committee said:
“This is one of the worst cases of project failure that the committee has seen in many years. FiReControl was an ambitious project with the objectives of improving national resilience, efficiency and technology by replacing the control room functions of 46 local Fire and Rescue Services in England with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system.
“The project was launched in 2004, but following a series of delays and difficulties, was terminated in December 2010 with none of the original objectives achieved and a minimum of £469m being wasted.
“The project was flawed from the outset, as the Department attempted, without sufficient mandatory powers, to impose a single, national approach on locally accountable Fire and Rescue Services who were reluctant to change the way they operated.
“Yet rather than engaging with the Services to persuade them of the project’s merits, the Department excluded them from decisions about the design of the regional control centres and the proposed IT solution, even though these decisions would leave local services with potential long-term costs and residual liabilities to which they had not agreed.
“The Department launched the project too quickly, driven by its wider aims to ensure a better co-ordinated national response to national disasters, such as terrorist attacks, rail crashes or floods. The Department also wanted to encourage and embed regional government in England.
“But it acted without applying basic project approval checks and balances – taking decisions before a business case, project plan or procurement strategy had been developed and tested amongst Fire Services. The result was hugely unrealistic forecast costs and savings, naïve over-optimism on the deliverability of the IT solution and under- appreciation or mitigation of the risks. The Department demonstrated poor judgement in approving the project and failed to provide appropriate checks and challenge.
“The fundamentals of project management continued to be absent as the project proceeded. So the new fire control centres were constructed and completed whilst there was considerable delay in even awarding the IT contract, let alone developing the essential IT infrastructure.
Consultants made up over half the management team (costing £69m by 2010) but were not managed. The project had convoluted governance arrangements, with a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities. There was a high turnover of senior managers although none have been held accountable for the failure. The committee considers this to be an extraordinary failure of leadership. Yet no individuals have been held accountable for the failure and waste associated with this project.”
Firecontrol was a politically-motivated project which used bricks, mortar and IT to try and change the way people worked. The users in the fire service didn’t want a single national approach of nine new regional centres – complete with new hardware and software – just as NHS clinicians, in general, did not want the National Programme for IT [NPfIT]. The Firecontrol regional centres were built anyway and the NPfIT went ahead anyway.
One lesson is that, in the public sector, you cannot engage users who won’t support the scheme. If they want to change, and they want the new IT, they’ll find ways to overcome the technology’s deficiencies. If they don’t want the scheme – and fire personnel did not want Firecontrol – the end-users will be incorrigibly harsh evaluators of what’s delivered, and not delivered.
It’s better to get the support of users, and involve them in the prototype design and test implementations, long before the scheme is finalised. It’s different in the private sector because the support of users is not essential – those who don’t accept business change and the associated IT will be expected to quit.
So what today is the mistake that is being repeated? The Public Accounts Committee touched on it when it said that the Department for Communities and Local Government – which was responsible for Firecontrol – “failed to provide appropriate checks and challenge”.
During the life of Firecontrol, the Office of Government Commerce carried out “Gateway reviews” which independently assessed progress or otherwise. The reviews could have provided an early warning of a project that was about to waste hundreds of millions of pounds. But the Gateway review reports were not published. They had a limited internal distribution and, it appears, were ignored.
According to the Public Accounts Committee, a Gateway review in April 2004, near the start of the Firecontrol project, said the scheme was in poor condition overall and at significant risk of failing to deliver.
Why was this Gateway review not published? If it had, Parliament and the media could have held ministers to account – and perhaps have campaigned to stop the project before millions were thrown away.
There was indeed a media campaign in 2004 – and before – to have Gateway reviews published, but ministers – and particularly civil servants – said no.
Now the same thing is happening. The civil service has persuaded the coalition government to carry on Labour’s tradition of keeping Gateway reviews secret. So Parliament and the media will continue to be kept in the dark on whether a major project is going wrong.
By the time details of the reviews are published, perhaps years later in a report of the National Audit Office, it may be too late to rescue the scheme. By then tens or hundreds of millions may have been wasted. Gateway reviews should be published around the time they are written, not years later.
Ministers do not have to pander to civil servants. They are paid to stand up to them. They receive a premium over the salary of MPs in part to be independent voices – to provide a challenge.
Subservient ministers in the DWP are among those who continue to allow Gateway reviews to remain hidden. If you ask the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of the Starting Gate report on Universal Credit (which I am told is not the same as a Gateway review report) the DWP will refuse your request. It refused mine.
So we have to accept the word of civil servants that the Universal Credit programme is going well; but haven’t there been enough IT-related disasters in government for all to know that the word of civil servants on whether things are going well needs to be tested independently? The publication of Gateway reviews – and Starting Gate reviews – could help outsiders hold a department to account. It’s time ministers began to realise this.
Are ministers such as Iain Duncan Smith in control of their departments – or are their civil servants in control of them?