Were the Fire and Rescue Service's FireControl project and the National Programme for IT in the NHS launched to discover all that can go wrong with a large IT-based project?
One could be forgiven for thinking so. The two projects were conceived in the early part of the new millennium as national, centralised schemes which, in the main, did not have any support from the people who would be using them.
The schemes were launched by civil servants and ministers with good intentions and little or no experience in the many IT-related project disasters that went before.
The projects that had failed since the late 1970s and early 1980s went wrong for similar reasons. As early as 1984 the Public Accounts Committee met to question civil servants on the common factors in a succession of “administrative computing” failures.
Since then every department has come to its IT-based projects and programmes with little understanding - and very little interest - in the lessons from history; and it’s said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat past mistakes.
The FireControl system, which is the subject of an NAO report today, and the NPfIT, had something striking in common: the fact that the system users were the ones with the control of money and decisions on how they spent it - and they did not want technology imposed on them by civil servants in London. That was clear from the start. But it did not stop either the NPfIT or FireControl going ahead.
Indeed a Gateway Review by the Office of Government Commerce in April 2004, after the FireControl project had been approved, found that the “extraordinarily fast pace” of the project was introducing new risks to its delivery, and was escalating the risks already identified. The review concluded that the project was in poor condition overall and at significant risk of failing to deliver.
That review was, at the time, as with similar reviews on the NPfIT, kept secret, so those outside the project, including MPs and the media, were unable to challenge the projects with a credibility that could have influenced decisions on the future of the schemes.
New gateway reviews are still kept secret today, despite the coalition’s promise of openness and transparency.
The good thing about the FireControl project and the NPfIT is that the Cabinet Office has taken control. A Cabinet Office Major Projects Review Group in in July 2010 concluded that negotiations should begin to terminate the FireControl contract - and indeed a settlement with the supplier EADS was reached successfully and amicably in December 2010. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is now reviewing the future of CSC’s £2.9bn worth of NPfIT contracts.
The bad thing is that the FireControl scheme has wasted at least £469m, according to today’s report of the National Audit Office. The NPfIT may have lost a great deal more.