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FiReControl’s Failure

The Public Accounts Committee have opined that the FiReControl project wasted £469 million pounds. A sobering report, all the more so if you were one of the people that worked on the project. How could things go so expensively wrong? 

I read the whole report from the PAC http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmpubacc/1397/139702.htmto see if I could work out from their evidence how the failure occurred, and what I could learn from it.

Largely I understand why it happened, and I can see some of the things that I was responsible for mentioned positively in the NAO & PAC reports. It just wasn’t quite enough to make it work. Fortunately (for me) I wasn’t involved in the procurement and so I don’t believe that I was directly responsible for the problems that occurred (for example not having a decent contract with appropriate milestones), or managing the contractors properly (these failings happened after my departure).

I worked on the FiReControl project for three years, from 2004 to 2007. I recruited 15 people to replace consultants (mainly from the fire and rescue service, but also some good junior civil servants). The project team was about 90 strong for the majority of the time I was there, with about 15-20 civil servants, 25-30 fire service secondees and about 50% consultants and contractors, including the project manager.

After talking to a lot of Fire and Rescue Authorities and their senior staff I re-wrote the business case to show that we were spending an awful lot more money and that there was a net cost to the project. (i.e. that it wasn’t going to save money in the long run, but it was expected to bring all 46 fire services up to the standard of the best and end the postcode lottery in fire service provision. It was also supposed to help deal more effectively with cross-border incidents and things like widespread flooding).

When I was there we tried hard to work with local fire authorities and their senior staff. We also made an effort to engage with staff in the 46 local control rooms. I personally visited 11 control rooms and spoke directly to the people doing the job, as well as their management. We had a team of 10 who spent their entire working time liaising with local controls, most of them were from the fire service, and at least two were control room managers prior to their secondment. So there was a lot of understanding on the project team of how the fire and rescue service actually worked.

I wasn’t directly involved in the procurement, although I was there when it was happening. There were some extensive requirements that had been developed in conjunction with representatives from fire services and the Chief Fire Officers Association. The testing team was one of the first teams set up on the project team (early in 2004) and it made sure that all of the requirements were testable before we sent out the tender documents, and kept that up to date throughout the competitive dialogue and subsequent contract negotiations. So it should have been clear to the contractors exactly what was required and how it would be tested. However I left the project shortly after contract award and cannot speak to how things developed or the commercial relationship (although given that the contractor failed to deliver it can’t have been that great).

That said, I recognise many of the criticisms made in the report. Some of them were contributing factors in my decision to move on from the project team as some of the senior managers dropped into the project following contract award clearly didn’t get it. Their reliance on consultants over civil servants and FRS secondees was astoundingly poor judgement in my opinion. I even had an argument with one about replacing one of my team members, I wanted to recruit another civil servant and she wanted me to have a consultant, even though the cost of a consultant for a month was the same as a civil servant for a year.

Things I did do:

  • Brokered the first meeting between a Government Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick, a former firefighter himself) and the FBU since the end of the fire strike (it took over two years for this meeting to happen);
  • Brokered the first meeting between John Prescott and the FBU since the fire strike (three years since he last met them);
  • Re-wrote the business case to show a net cost as a result of the project (and the cost we had then was remarkably close to the cost cited by NAO);
  • Replaced 15 expensive consultants with fire and rescue service and civil service personnel;
  • Lead engagement with Fire & Rescue Authority accountants and lawyers to ensure that the costs and liabilities of moving to regional controls were properly understood and that solutions to problems were developed with the people who would operate the regional controls (had they been implemented);

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