How FiRe Control burned £494m hole in public finances

MPs published yet another account of bodge and splurge in government IT today. It was a familiar story. But one that for once had lessons for the coalition government.

The topic of today’s autopsy was the stinking carcass left from the last government’s IT-led reform of Fire and Rescue Services, called FiRe Control. Begun in 2004 and cancelled in 2010, it burned through half a billion pounds of public money.

The project was tabled in a frenzy over the “War on Terror”. The emergency services had to be got ship-shape, and quick. So the Department for Communities and Local Government called in military contractor EADS. They then proceeded without proper planning to waste six years and £494m getting nowhere.

The idea was the encourage localism among the 46 Fire Services. DCLG did this by forcing them to ditch their existing control rooms and replace them with nine, pan-local centres. It then tried to force a new computer system on them. It said they had to change their working processes to fit the new system, which it aimed to take ‘off-the-shelf’ from EADS to save money and time. So much for localism.

If this sounds similar to plans being pursued by under the coalition’s banner of localism that’s because it is. And that one’s under DCLG’s remit too.

The Fire Services were of course excluded from all this important work. Their input would be required only when it came to paying the bill for post-implementation costs.

In all the rush, DCLG and Treasury approved the budget before they had determined whether the project was feasible. They sped past warnings from Gateway reviewers. They rushed on without properly planning what they were doing.

They also lacked the staff to do the job. So did EADS. So EADS subcontracted the work. DCLG notched up a bill of £69m for flash-Larry consultants. It paid £42m alone to PA Consulting. And the project was still so poorly managed the Public Accounts Committee said today it was among the worst it has ever seen.

The contract was so troublesome it took three years to draft. When it was agreed in 2007, the control centres were three months from completion. It was still “weak” and “poorly designed”.

EADS went off on its own trajectory that had nothing to do with the contract anyway. The document had no means of keeping them in check. DCLG got through five senior responsible owners and four Project Directors – the people who are supposed to keep things under control.

DCLG kept insisting the project should continue. Local fire services meanwhile opposed the plans. They didn’t like the reforms being imposed on them. So much for localism.

The department has put up another £84.8m to clear up the mess. The Fire Service has nine empty, regional control centres without an IT system to run them and staff still follow the same working processes they did in 2004.

The PAC said people should be held accountable. But it sounded like bluster. It didn’t name the nine civil servants responsible, nor the lead consultants, nor the lawyers who drafted the atrocious contract, nor the companies to which EADS subcontracted the actual work. It didn’t even name EADS or its Cassidian IT subsidiary. Nor did it actually account for the lost £494m.

The PAC had no shortage of colourful adjectives to describe just how poor this New Labour IT project was. It’s recommendations were familiar: consult users, manage things properly, hold management accountable. We’ve heard it all before.