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FiRe Control failure needs enquiry


London: When the British Parliament's Commons Public Accounts Committee published its report into the failure of the FiReControl project last month, PA Consulting's ears must have been burning.

It would not have been much consolation to PA that the incendiary criticism made of everyone involved in the project did not name names — they knew who they were — or that the most damning comments were aimed at the EADS company now known as Cassidian.

It is worth recalling what The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the committee said at length:

"The Department's (Department for Communities and Local Government) ambitious vision of abolishing 46 local fire and rescue control rooms around the country and replacing them with nine state of the art regional control centres ended in complete failure. The taxpayer has lost nearly half a billion pounds and eight of the completed regional control centres remain as empty and costly white elephants.

"The success of the so-called FiReControl project crucially turned on the cooperation of locally accountable and independent Fire and Rescue Services. The Department's failure both to recognize this and try to ensure local buy-in fatally undermined the project from the start.

"The project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks. The leadership relied far too much on external consultants and the frequent departures of senior staff also contributed to weak management and oversight of the project.

"The contract to implement a national IT system linking the control centres was not even awarded until a full three years after the project started. The contract itself was poorly designed and awarded to a company without relevant experience. The computer system was simply never delivered.

"No one has been held to account for this project failure, one of the worst we have seen for many years, and the careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all and the consultants and contractor continue to work on many other government projects.

"The Department now plans to spend a further £84.8 million to secure the original objectives of FiReControl, so that there is a co-ordinated response to national incidents. However it is not clear to us how this extra spending will deliver value for money or achieve the objectives intended."

So no winners at all.

The committee's criticism of the Department as buyer is eye watering, and what it says about PA's role is food for thought for the whole consulting community.

The report notes that, "consultants made up over half the management team (costing £69 million 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."

We will come to an analysis of how this could have happened another time. But put this project into a narrative with the apparent failure or over-spend of so many other UK government projects — not least the sorry saga of NHS computerisation — and it is clear that consulting's role as public sector advisor, in the UK and beyond, is seriously compromised.

A thorough, perhaps independent, epidemiological study into this serial failure would surely be in the interests of the whole consulting community, and the sooner it is undertaken the better.

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