The heads of the FireControl project have conceded to the powerful Public Accounts Committee a raft of reasons why the £469 million scheme failed.
At a heated hearing in parliament last night, Sir Bob Kerslake, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, told MPs that “overambition at the beginning [of the project], an underestimation of the risks, changes in personnel, and an overreliance on contractors” had led to the failure.
Kerslake said he recognised that these problems were “common” to “very large scale projects” in government.
FireControl was scrapped by the coalition government last year, after extensive delays and a failure to secure the support of many in the fire service. MPs at the hearing branded it a “textbook” failure that was an example of how not to run a project.
Kerslake said that following FireControl’s failure, which has been likened to the disastrous outcome of the £11.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT, the governmented needed to “think very carefully” before launching large projects.
Lessons that Kerslake said he hoped the government had learnt were that projects needed to be “bottom up” instead of imposed centrally.
Richard Bacon MP, a member of the committee, praised the work of fire service personnel “on the ground” and criticised the burden placed on them by civil servants leading the project.
“It’s lions led by donkeys, isn’t it?” he said, in an angry exchange with FireControl chiefs.
Bacon demanded to know who at the top had been fired as a result of the failure of the scheme. The FireControl chiefs said no-one had lost their job directly as a result, but that instead a string of Senior Responsible Owners had moved elsewhere in the civil service or retired.
“I’m sitting here taking responsibility,” said Kerslake.
Bacon replied angrily: “It’s just an uncomfortable couple of hours for you.”
As detailed in a National Audit Office report published last week, FireControl chiefs conceded they had had trouble shutting down the project after 2009, when the decision was taken, because of a tough contract with IT supplier EADS and a failure to hold the company to proper milestones.
“The milestones were introduced in the project too late,” said Kerslake. “we had insufficient levers in negotiations.”
The PAC will issue its report on the scheme in the coming few weeks.