Nearly £500m up in smoke: Four failures that wrecked another gov't IT project

Why did FiReControl spiral out of control? The Public Accounts Committee gives its verdict...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Why did FiReControl spiral out of control? The Public Accounts Committee gives its verdict...

Fire engine

DCLG took a top-down approach to the FiReControl project - which contributed to its £469m+ failurePhoto: Shutterstock

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published its report into the failure of yet another government IT project, slamming the FiReControl project as "one of the worst we have seen for many years".

The project had aimed to create nine regional fire control centres to co-ordinate the actions of 45 fire and rescue services across England, replacing 46 local fire control rooms. But it was scrapped by the coalition government at the end of 2010, after years of delays and cost overruns.

Now eight of the purpose-built centres remain empty and continue to cost the taxpayer £4m per month to maintain, according to the PAC. The total cost of FiReControl's failure: close to half a billion pounds of public money - at least £469m - gone up in smoke.

So what went wrong? The PAC took evidence from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and representatives from the fire and rescue services to reach its conclusions. Here are four reasons why another ambitious government IT project failed so spectacularly to deliver on its promises.

Failure 1: Taking a top-down approach, instead of getting local buy-in
PAC said FiReControl was flawed from the outset because DCLG did not have sufficient power to impose a single national approach on locally accountable fire and rescue services - yet they tried to do this anyway.

Local services were reluctant to change how they operated but, rather than engaging with the service to persuade them of the advantages of FiReControl, the PAC report notes that DCLG excluded the services from decisions about the design of the regional control centres and the proposed IT infrastructure. Yet the local services were the ones who would have had to swallow any long-term costs and residual liabilities.

Analyst house TechMarketView notes that this ill-fated top-down approach also dogged the government's attempt to overhaul NHS IT - the National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

Failure 2: Rushing in without proper checks and balances
The PAC report notes the project was rushed - launched too quickly as the government sought to deliver on wider aims to ensure better co-ordinated national responses to national disasters such as terrorist attacks. All this haste to hit the ground running meant...

...DCLG failed to apply basic project approval checks and balances to ensure it stayed on track, demonstrating "poor judgement" and leading to inflated expectations about what could be delivered.

Decisions were taken on FiReControl before a business case, project plan or procurement strategy had been developed and tested among fire services, the PAC notes. This led to "hugely unrealistic forecast costs and savings", along with "naïve over-optimism" on the deliverability of the IT component of the project. Project risks were also underappreciated and underestimated.

Failure 3: Bad management, lack of leadership and weak oversight
After such a rushed and poorly thought-through beginning, the management failures continued to stack up. DCLG lacked the necessary expertise and experience to deliver the project itself so consultants made up more than half of the management team but were not managed effectively, according to the PAC. There was also generally a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities - and the project had a high turnover of senior managers leading to weak project oversight.

The report also notes that DCLG failed to approach FiReControl as a business transformation project, instead treating each element in isolation. This led to significant delays between different project components, with the PAC noting considerable delays between the construction and completion of the fire control centres, and the awarding of the IT contract and development of the IT infrastructure.

Failure 4: Lack of contract management fundamentals
DCLG awarded FiReControl's IT contract to a company with no direct experience of supplying the emergency services, the PAC notes. This company also mostly relied on sub-contractors, over whom the department had no visibility or control.

While that was bad enough, the IT contract itself was poorly designed - failing to follow the most basic fundamentals of good contract management, such as early milestones, which would have enabled DCLG to hold the contractor to account for project delays.

Payments within the contract were also scheduled too late, creating tension in an already strained relationship. And DCLG allowed the contractor to deviate from the agreed approach - yet when problems emerged it did not take timely corrective action, said the PAC.

Want more advice on IT projects? Check out Five ways to stop your IT projects spiralling out of control and overbudget.

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