Firecontrol disaster and NPfIT – two of a kind?

By Tony Collins

Today’s report of the Public Account Committee on the Firecontrol project could, in many ways, be a report on the consequences of the failure of the National Programme for IT in the NHS in a few years time.

The Firecontrol project was built along similar lines to the NPfIT but on a smaller scale.

With Firecontrol, Whitehall officials wanted to persuade England’s semi-autonomous 46 local fire authorities to take a centrally-bought  IT system while simplifying and unifying their local working practices to adapt to the new technology.

NPfIT followed the same principle on a bigger scale: Whitehall officials wanted to persuade thousands of semi-autonomous NHS organisations to adopt centrally-bought technologies. But persuasion didn’t work, in either the fire services or the NHS.

More similarities

The Department for Communities and Local Government told
the PAC that the Firecontrol control was “over-specified” – that it was unnecessary to have back-up to an incident from a fire authority from the other side of the country.

Many in the NHS said that NPfIT was over-specified. The gold-plated trimmings, and elaborate attempts at standardisation,  made the patient record systems unnecessarily complicated and costly – and too difficult to deliver in practice.

As with the NPfIT, the Firecontrol system was delayed and local staff  had little or no confidence it would ever work, just as the NHS had little or no faith that NPfIT systems would ever work.

Both projects failed. Firecontrol wasted at least £482m. The Department of Communities and Local Government cancelled it in 2010. The Department of Health announced in 2011 that the NPfIT was being dismantled but the contracts with CSC and BT could not be cancelled and the programme is dragging on.

Now the NHS is buying its own local systems that may or may not be interoperable. [Particularly for the long-term sick, especially those who have to go to different specialist centres, it’s important that full and up-to-date medical records go wherever the patients are treated and don’t at the moment, which increases the risks of mistakes.]

Today’s Firecontrol report expresses concern about a new – local – approach to fire services IT. Will the local fire authorities now end up with a multitude of risky local systems, some of which don’t work properly, and are all incompatible, in other words don’t talk to each other?

This may be exactly the concern of a post-2015 government about NHS IT. With the NPfIT slowly dying NHS trusts are buying their own systems. The coalition wants them to interoperate, but will they?  

Could a post-2015 government introduce a new (and probably disastrous) national NHS IT project – son of NPfIT – and justify it by drawing attention to how very different it is to the original NPfIT eg that this time the programme has the buy-in of clinicians?

The warning signs are there, in the PAC’s report on Firecontrol. The report says there are delays on some local IT projects being implemented in fire authorities, and the systems may not be interoperable. The PAC has 

” serious concerns that there are insufficient skills across all fire authorities to ensure that 22 separate local projects can be procured and delivered efficiently in so far as they involve new IT systems”.

National to local – but one extreme to the other?

The PAC report continues

“There are risks to value for money from multiple local projects. Each of the 22 local projects is now procuring the services and systems they need separately.

“Local teams need to have the right skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively. We were sceptical that all the teams had the appropriate procurement and IT skills to secure good value for money.

“National support and coordination can help ensure systems are compatible and fire and rescue authorities learn from each other, but the Department has largely devolved these roles to the individual fire and rescue authorities.

“There is a risk that the Department has swung from an overly prescriptive national approach to one that provides insufficient national oversight and coordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale. 

Comment

PAC reports are meant to be critical but perhaps the report on Firecontrol could have been a little more positive about the new local approach that has the overwhelming support of the individual fire and rescue authorities.  

Indeed the PAC quotes fire service officials as saying that the local approach is “producing more capability than was expected from the original FiReControl project”. And at a fraction of the cost of Firecontrol.

But the PAC’s Firecontrol Update Report expresses concern that

– projected savings from the local approach are now less than originally predicted

– seven of the 22 projects are running late and two of these projects have slipped by 12 months

– “We have repeatedly seen failures in project management and are concerned that the skills needed for IT procurement may not be present within the individual fire and rescue authorities, some of which have small management teams,” says the PAC.

On the other hand …

The shortfall in projected savings is small – £124m against £126m and all the local programmes are expected to be delivered by March 2015, only three months later than originally planned.

And, as the PAC says, the Department for Communities and Local Government has told MPs that a central peer review team is in place to help share good practice – mainly made up of members of fire and rescue authorities themselves.

In addition, part of the £82m of grant funding to local fire services has been used by some authorities to buy in procurement expertise.

Whether it is absolutely necessary – and worth the expense – for IT in fire services to link up is open to question, perhaps only necessary in a national emergency.

In the NHS it is absolutely necessary for the medical records of the chronically sick to link up – but that does not justify a son-of-NPfIT programme. Linking can be done cheaply by using existing records and having, say, regional servers pull together records from individual hospitals and other sites.

Perhaps the key lesson from the Firecontrol and the NPfIT projects is that large private companies can force their staff to use unified IT systems whereas Whitehall cannot force semi-autonomous public sector organisations to use whatever IT is bought centrally.

It’s right that the fire services are buying local IT and it’s right that the NHS is now too. If the will is there to do it cheaply, linking up the IT in the NHS can be done without huge central administrative edifices.

Lessons from FireControl (and NPfIT?) 

The National Audit Office identifies these main lessons from the failure of Firecontrol:

– Imposing a single national approach on locally accountable fire and rescue authorities that were reluctant to change how they operated

–  Launching the programme too quickly without applying basic project approval checks and balances

– Over optimism on the deliverability of the IT solution.

– Issues with project management including consultants who made up half of the management team and were not effectively managed

MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, today sums up the state of Firecontrol

“The original FiReControl project was one of the worst cases of project failure we have seen and wasted at least £482 million of taxpayers’ money.

“Three years after the project was cancelled, the DCLG still hasn’t decided what it is going to do with many of the specially designed, high-specification facilities and buildings which had been built. Four of the nine regional control centres are still empty and look likely to remain so.

“The Department has now provided fire and rescue authorities with an additional £82 million to implement a new approach based on 22 separate and locally-led projects.

“The new programme has already slipped by three months and projected savings are now less than originally predicted. Seven of the 22 projects are reportedly running late and two have been delayed by 12 months. We are therefore sceptical that projected savings, benefits and timescales will be achieved.

“Relying on multiple local projects risks value for money. We are not confident that local teams have the right IT and procurement skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively.

“There is a risk that the DCLG has swung from an overly prescriptive national approach to one that does not provide enough national oversight and coordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale.

 “We want the Department to explain to us how individual fire and rescue authorities with varied degrees of local engagement and collaboration can provide the needed level of interoperability and resilience.

“Devolving decision-making and delivery to local bodies does not remove the duty on the Department to account for value for money. It needs to ensure that national objectives, such as the collaboration needed between fire authorities to deal with national disasters and challenges, are achieved.”

Why weren’t NPfIT projects cancelled?

 NPfIT contracts included commitments that the Department of Health and the NHS allegedly did not keep, which weakened their legal position; and some DH officials did not really want to cancel the NPfIT contracts (indeed senior officials at NHS England seem to be trying to keep NPfIT projects alive through the Health and Social Care Information Centre which is responsible for the local service provider contracts with BT and CSC).

PAC report on Firecontrol

What Firecontrol and the NPfIT have in common (2011)

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5 responses to “Firecontrol disaster and NPfIT – two of a kind?

  1. I don’t accept that in the NHS’s case that complications arising from a failure to agree and accept standard/best practice approaches is necessarily the processes fault. A single view on best practise per Trust would be hard but a great step forward from the per clinician “best practice is the way I do it” approach. Trusts were even unwilling to adopt standardised clinical codes so access to a patients details would be of limited use anyway. What value (other than jobs for CXOs) do Trusts add? These problems do not occur in command and control organisations.

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    • What you say is true but the reality is that the centre cannot tell trusts what to do. The Wessex Regional Health Authority tried to get trusts to buy a centrally-chosen system that was not a bad system (TDS, a US system). Trusts didn’t want to be told what to do – and they controlled their budgets. Even offering free systems to trusts as happened with the NPfIT didn’t usually work. Command and control doesn’t work in the NHS so what will work?

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  2. Down here in Taunton we have a huge SW Regional Fire Centre – the “white elephant in the room”.

    It stands empty costing £1m+ a year, while the Devon & Somerset Fire Service have cut the two permanent fire crews based in Taunton to one i.e. 50% cut (whereas overall fire service budget cut 20%). Uh?

    The money for this PFI (yet another bad example) could be used for fire budgets. Will we pay £1m+ for another 2o years until the end of this PFI contract?

    And why were Avon & Somerset Police allowed another expensive Home Office PFI (adding to national debt) to build a new custody centre & police facility 12 miles down the road at Bridgwater, while the SW Fire centre stands empty & unused? Where is the joined up Government?

    The Taunton fire station crews were first on the scene at the adjacent M5 when the fog & fireworks display accident occurred just over a year ago – said to be one of the worst motorway accidents ever seen.

    Will Lord Prescott or anyone in charge take responsibility? No.

    Did anyone lose their job and/or their reputation. No.

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  3. Good point. I use the term “IT projects” too often as an only too convenient shorthand.

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  4. There are no IT projects, only business projects. Firecontrol was about completely re-structuring our blue light services, and using IT to do so in a pre-emptive manner.

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