When an investigative team from BBC File on 4 went to a business estate near Taunton, they saw an empty “hi-tech fortress” that looked like a NASA control room.
Nobody was working there. Nearly an entire wall of the control room was fitted with 50-inch monitors - 20 of them. They were blank.
That centre - and a further eight purpose-built buildings like it - remain empty because control room software has yet to be installed.
The £469m wasted on the centres and the failed IT project to support them - together called Firecontrol - was the subject yesterday of a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee.
At the hearing Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, said that officials made a “mistaken” recommendation to go-ahead of a new IT and control centres for fire services.
Kerslake accepted points made the Committee’s chair Margaret Hodge that officials recommended the go-ahead of the Firecontrol IT project without reliable figures on:
- likely costs
No finalised business case or project plan
Also absent when the IT procurement went ahead was a finalised project plan or business case, MPs heard yesterday. The full business case for Firecontrol wasn’t published until June 2007, three years after the start of the IT project. A revised business case was published in 2009, the year before the project was cancelled.
Rush to buy new systems - as with the NHS IT scheme
The Committee was told that procurement of new systems was underway by May 2004, amid a deep level of ignorance, because officials were in a rush.
It was a similar story on the NPfIT: officials were in a hurry to complete the procurement of new systems. And as with the NPfIT, there was no local buy-in. “Firecontrol was flawed from the outset because it did not have the support of the majority of those essential to its success - its users,” said the NAO.
Local fire services were under no statutory duty to use the regional control centres. As with the NPfIT, central government officials thought they could persuade local services to use the centres. They failed.
Firecontrol has lost a minimum of £469m, according to the NAO. The Department cancelled the scheme in December 2010 because of continued uncertainties. The coalition has approved a new project due to cost about £84m - which prompted MPs to ask yesterday why the original scheme could not have been done much cheaper.
What about the officials who made the flawed recommendation to go ahead?
Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, asked Kerslake why his department did not seek a "ministerial direction" before embarking on a project that was so flawed. Ministerial directions are issued by departments’ most senior civil servants when they disagree with their minister's decision so strongly that they refuse to be accountable for it.
Kerslake replied that no ministerial direction was issued because it was officials who were recommending the project’s go-ahead.
“I don’t think it came to that [Ministerial Direction] because the view of officials was to recommend, with some of issues identified as concerns, that the scheme went ahead. This was not a case where a Direction would have applied because the recommendation from officials, as I understand it, was to go ahead with the scheme.”
MPs heard that Kerslake was a non-executive director at the department when the decision was taken to go ahead with Firecontrol. Didn’t he object to the scheme’s approval?
Kerslake said he raised concerns to the board about the large scale of the investment compared to the problem. “The concern I had at the time, whether fire and rescue services were willing to take on this technology, were all points that were discussed. The view of the officials on balance at the time was that the benefits of doing the scheme outweighed the risks and costs.”
Kerslake said that as a non-executive he was on the board in an advisory role.
Conservative MP Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the committee, asked Kerslake if his scepticism as a non-executive was recorded.
“It was clearly part of the discussion. I have not gone back and checked every note of the meetings.”
MP Richard Bacon suggested yesterday that the only accountability for the failure of the project was Sir Robert Kerslake's having an uncomfortable two hours before the Public Accounts Committee.
As for his officials, the only accountability for the waste of £469m was to sit in seats behind him, periodically passing him notes. An observer at the hearing said public seats in the committee room “seemed to be packed full of advisers passing notes to the four people hauled before the committee”.
It’s a civil service tradition that officials are not generally held responsible for recommendations because the final decision on major projects is taken by the department’s minister; yet ministers will tend to know only what they are told by department’s civil servants.
If the officials are incompetent in drawing up their recommendations, they may be incompetent in the briefings they give their ministers.
Even so it would be a brave minister who rejected the recommendation of permanent and supposedly expert staff.
That’s why the coalition’s setting up of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is such a good move: it will challenge departmental complacency and over-confidence in its own abilities and decisions.
Cabinet Office Francis Maude announced on 31 March 2011 that “from today all major projects will be scrutinised by the new Major Projects Authority".
Most importantly it has powers from the Prime Minister to oversee and direct the effective management of all large-scale projects. Though there are still uncertainties among Cabinet Office officials about the extent to which the Major Projects Authority can intervene in major projects, it has an enforceable mandate from Cameron to scrutinise proposals for major projects; and the Authority is run by the redoubtable Australian David Pitchford who reports to the Cabinet Office’s Chief Operating Officer Ian Watmore whose brief includes making efficiency savings.
With the Major Projects Authority central government has the chance to stop flawed projects such as Firecontrol going ahead. Yesterday's PAC hearing showed how badly the Authority is needed as an independent challenge. The existence of the Authority is one of the most important developments in government IT for decades - provided it makes effective use of the PM’s mandate.