back to article MPs: 999 HQ revamp FAIL cost £469m

Failure to understand IT was one of the core reasons for what the Public Accounts Committee has called "one of the worst cases of project failure in many years". FireControl – the attempt to rationalise 45 fire service control rooms into nine regional control centres – was cancelled in December 2010 after six years and the …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And this is suprising because?

    Why are we continually surprised by these stories? Giving any project to a large IT "consultancy" firm is always a bad idea IMHO. There is no pride, no ownership and they are always made up of project managers. The actual IT work is just offloaded to some cheap resources.

    It would be far better to award these contracts to a smallish IT firm who are hungry to make this work and who employ top class people.

  2. Goldmember

    holy shit...

    The empty buildings are costing the taxpayer £4m per MONTH to maintain:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14974552

    Thanks, labour

    1. Andy ORourke

      I'll maintain them

      for £2 Million Per month

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What happened to

      remove any pricey kit, lock the doors, board up the windows, and the last one out turn off the lights?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    FFS

    This has to be the new standard by which IT project failures get rated by...

    Why are governments (local and national) so piss-poor are doing this sort of stuff? And it's not just IT - take my local shambles:

    - Edinburgh Trams (this is the purest definition of farce)

    - The Scottish Parliment building (*way* over budget)

    - The new forth bridge (already planned to be over budget)

    - The borders railway line (already late)

    Why do we elect this muppets in??? Why does nobody ask in the elections "Will you deliver big projects ontime, and on budget, and can we fire you when you don't?".

    1. Northwald

      I agree with you, and supports the positive action of Edinburgh Council to disband internal project management organisation - tie - in favour of a slightly more expensive external organisation to manage the tram project. The muppets are there to oversee, but the real management should be done by professional organisations.

  4. TheCave

    Lol its just tragic

    Its pretty typical really... although I particularly enjoyed the finger pointing at the prime contractors... I've worked with LG on similar projects (not this one thankfully), and in all honesty, its LG's unwillingness to change their working practices or their failure to understand how it will work and agree on the the new workflow that is the problem...

    that and they're all on flexi time.

  5. Arrrggghh-otron

    Wow...

    Bonuses all round then?

  6. Martin Lyne

    I'd love to see a breakdown of those costs. How much were the consultants?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      £42M to PA consulting alone and £90M on project management apparently.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Well, that depends....

      There were a bunch of contractors on normal sort of contractor rates, £5-700/day plus whatever the agency was adding on top. Then there were a bunch of "proper" consultants from HP, IBM, and others, on £1,500 or so a day.

      Those were the rates paid by EADS, so presumably they were charging more to CLG for the work done.

      I won't bore you with the long, long list of everything that was wrong with the project, as I've just about managed to heal the scars a year after leaving the project.

      AC, for obvious reasons.

  7. Maurice Shakeshaft

    I'm sure I heard reports of this project going off the rails...

    back in 2007.

    There will be projects in hand at the moment going the same way - not as spectacularly, perhaps - but still wasting taxpayers hard earned money.

    When an how will the message get through that taxpaying is not a discretionary activity and money deployed from it merits a proper level of scrutiny. Clearly it hasn't yet.

    I've been working with computers in Industry for nearly 35 years and never cease to be amazed that bright young things (like I once was??) fail to learn from history that if you don't involve the right folks at the beginning then you will end up with a pigs ear.

    Scrutiny happens in the private (and frequently corporate) sector because expenditure is derived from profit and that is harder to get than taxes. The private sector contractors in this case may have been either a tad unscrupulous or maybe just incompetent when they allowed their customer to waste so much of their fellow taxpayers money but I confess I don't know.

    1. Arrrggghh-otron

      Pigs in troughs

      Why should anyone in this chain of command care what happens when there are no consequences and as you rightly point out, public expenditure isn't scrutinised properly?

      The MPs bray and jeer until something vague gets decided, that then gets passed onto another department who outsource all the work to an empty shell of a company who outsourced all their talent already and end up having to sub contract the work and no one really cares that much about the project as no one is really vested in it. Then when it fails a committee is appointed and fingers are wagged with maybe a token repositioning of key personnel. All of it costing us money...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The private and corporate sector (same thing?) are no better. They all employ large consultancy firms who stink at delivering. Instead of outsourcing them, we'd be better off going back to the 80s/90s model of operating where companies grew their own IT devision - and not just for "managing" IT - actually, doing it. When will they ever learn that you should employ people who are exceptionally good and personally motivated with the end product. Feeling ownership is key.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Internal Staff

        The problem is that a lot of companies think that they can treat software development and support like buying the business cards or the car fleet, where you put it out to tender, get it done and 12 months later get someone else to take over.

        The problem is that you can't. Software development knowledge take a while to pick up.

        On top of that, there's few cost benefits to outsourcing. When you buy a car, you're buying a manufactured product with a lot of fixed costs then then get spread around customers, which is why it's cheaper to buy than build your own car. Custom software development isn't like that. It's labour intensive.

        The big consultancies are basically about massive marketing, convincing clueless twats in higher management of their brilliance. It's now my #1 measure of how twattish an organisation is if they have the sort of managers who hire those clowns. Most of the time, they either push the work out to India, where you get some trainee who is basically being trained on your time, or else they hire a contractor here (in which case, why didn't you just hire the contractor yourself).

  8. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    In addition

    ISTR that the new centre to cover Bristol / Gloucester was built in a flood area, even though one of the most tasking emergencies in Gloucester recently was flooding...

    Also the new system would not accept addresses like "The new Tesco", or "Opposite the Frog & Radiator pub". I wouldn't be surprised either if later the systems would be totally networked and your 999 call would be answered "Hello you are talking to Rashid, how am I helping you?" followed by "No, I am not knowing where is the Frog & Radiator, I am living in Bombay"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Hah!

      Better than that, the Gloucester floods were the sample event chosen on which a lot of the "extreme event" figures were based.

  9. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

    8 buildings

    I hope they recoup some of the cost but some how I doubt it.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Without naming names, I'm sure most independents reading could...

    name instances where consultancy companies have had a different non public agenda for their onsite staff, than their public facing one.

    The government is a pork barrel. I've sat in meetings and watched senior consultancy account managers flounce in, and won't let people leave the room, until they've established how much money the department has to spend.

    My favourite was this guy, who walked in, and tried to wow the clients, by announcing in hushed tones that perhaps we should have chatham house rules, for a completely public, non-controversial, politically insensitive project, which you just know would be reported straight back to company hq.

    Then he settled in, asked what should we do this quarter. The client's techie said "Well, we should fix what you haven't yet done." and he responded with "or we could do something with REST. I have a REST expert here." He had no requirements from the client, but tried to instigate some prototype project, for which there was no need, just to get some funding.

    Can anyone beat that?

    1. Roger Varley

      Well, you might think that the Account Managers job is to ensure that you get the system you want, on time and on budget. However, the Account Manager knows that his job is to bring in fees, because that is what is bonus is based on.

  11. John Styles

    Can I be the 493rd person to ask what the hell is wrong with these people? What would be the equivalent level of stupidity in some other field? It would be like invading a country to overturn the regime with absolutely no plan as to what to do afterwards.

    1. Vometia

      I think you're making the key mistake of assuming that the people in question have any integrity: I've puzzled over the same thing until I realise that they don't, then it suddenly makes sense.

      1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

        And what do you think would happen to the management team of a private company that managed to dumped nearly half a billion down the toilet (apart from bankers who seem to be well rewarded no matter what they do), can you think what might happen to the project managers on such a project?

        Now; what do you think will happen to the senior civil servants who manage to dump nearly half a billion down the toilet.

        There; I've answered your question for you.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Should be compulsory reading for civil servants

    Yes Dave Hartnett & Stephen Banyard I'm thinking of you - PAYE handles £245bn of transactions every year, and you've been allocated £105m to make RTI work... spend it wisely, for all our sakes!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      To: Phil Pavitt (HMRC)

      Phil,

      I've told you before... just let it go.

      luv Lesley.

  13. Tony S

    "requiring 46 local fire services to standardise the way they operated"

    I would suggest that they stop referring to these as "IT Projects" - they should more properly be referred to as "Business Change Projects" as that seems to be the most important part. The IT seems to be actually quite a small proportion of the work involved.

    Of course, that doesn't resolve the fact that most of these projects are badly thought out, have inadequate requirements definition, at best poor management, and very limited stakeholder involvement. Is it any wonder that they fail so badly?

    Come the day of the revolution brothers....

  14. Andy 73

    Note: Criticism levelled at the Department, not the Consultants.

    Yes, of course there are consultants who are incompetent and out for everything they can get.

    However, the fix is to not employ them in the first place, and the responsibility for that lies with the unaccountable civil servants who happily hand out contracts to anyone with an impressive sounding title.

    As the customer, it is their responsibility to choose the right vendor and work with them to produce a solution. The fact that they can throw a large sum of money over the wall, wait a few years and walk away with no responsibility for the mess that happens ensures that this mistake will happen again and again. In this case, the over-large consultancies that crop up time and time again are the symptom of the underlying problem, not the cause.

  15. pop_corn

    Oops, was that me?

    I was one of the consultants on the FiReControl project, being there for 2 years, and can answer some of the questions posed here.

    The main problem, as with most government IT projects, is that the initial requirements were very poor. There were several thousand requirements written down, which ranged from ones that were barely a sentence, to ones that were half a page of A4. These were further confused as the bid documentation was considered "in contract" to supply.

    Even as late as Dec 2010, (some 5 years after contract award and already several years late) there were still arguments going on as to what many of the requirements meant! It was typical end user vs consultancy stuff: where a poorly written requirement wasn't definitive, the customer wanted it to do all that was written PLUS all that was implied PLUS all that they'd thought up in the intervening years (which changed on a weekly bases depending on which customer rep you were talking to), whereas the consultancy wanted to do the minimum that could possibly be interpreted.

    This is a real example that I heard about: in the bid submission document the consultancy had said (I'm paraphrasing): "We will supply tablet PCs which have inputs that can connect to a range of external devices, e.g. a fire appliance low battery warning system."

    The customer insisted then that a low battery warning system, connection and software was part of the agreed requirements and refused to sign off that part of the design without it. The consultancy contended that it wasn't, and that this was just an example of what could be done had the customer chosen to opt for it. This was one of *thousands* of requirement issues that were raised. As a result, sign off from the customer on any document took literally months and months.

    When work was finally done to atomise the requirements into single, simple, unambiguous, testable statements, the requirements count passed 15,000 as I recall. This problem was replicated between the prime contractor and the 9 sub-contractors, as each of these thousands of requirements had to be flowed down to a sub-contractor via a signed off design or held internally.

    Put bluntly, the project died under it's own weight in paperwork. It was a classic waterfall IT project fail, that sought to change the systems, processes, people, technology and even locations, all in one almighty big bang. It was never going to work.

    1. Anonymous Cowerd

      I'm currently watching a similar process from the inside

      where the requirements are largely undefined (the business want it designed first, so that they can then determine what the requirements were). Meanwhile, the external contractors are insisting that a detailed design doesn't include any technical specs and therefore that any technical specs aren't deliverables, so they don't have to write any.

      All the people below management level are trying to point out the impending disaster which awaits, but there seems to be an acoustic ceiling, beyond which nobody can hear the people below them screaming that they need to stop right now and insist on requirements and deliverable technical specs.

      All they can hear is the ker-ching! in their pay packets as they get to each failed project milestone, while busily lying (ker-ching!) about how they've achieved it all by ticking a few check boxes. By the time it goes in (if ever) they'll be long gone. So will we if it does, as they'll outsource support (ker-ching!) for this steaming pile of shit to the idiots who built it.

      Ker-ching!

      Our only hope is (as you mentioned) that the entire thing collapses under its own weight and we have to stay to maintain the existing, fully functional, not-broke-so-don't-need-fixing legacy systems.

    2. Geoff Campbell
      Pint

      We should start a survivors' group, really.

      Not my favourite project, by quite a large margin.

      GJC

    3. Nick Miles

      Hmm

      Your reference to Station end makes me think that I woul dhave been sitting next to you for most of that 2 years.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, with teh single exception that no mention was made of a certain chinless wonder.

  16. Dodgy Pilot

    Who is to blame ?

    Somebody sat at the head of the table and directed this fiasco. Who was it? Nope, I don't know either and sadly, I'd bet a penny to a pound that they are now in another position which will allow them to screw things up and then hand us the bill.

    I'm pleased to see public spending under more scrutiny these days but it's also time that people are held accountable. Whoever held the leading role in this incredible foul-up needs to pay the price for their part in it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      This may sound cynical

      But if you look through the list of those who became "Sir" with tea and biscuits with Betty you'll probably find the person to blame there

  17. Sam Liddicott

    JUST STOP

    This is why I want the government to JUST STOP IT. Whatever it is, you're doing it wrong and we can't afford it.

    Please, just STOP.

    Go home. It's cheaper and safer. You only ever listen to commercial lobbyists anyway, so WE THE PEOPLE don't actually need you (we haven't had you for years anyway) so just play monopoly or something.

    (I'm talking about the government as a creature, not individual MP's)

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Been there, seen that

    Poor requirements capture + inexpert stakeholders + turgid management = inevitable screw-up.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Almost right

      Poor requirements capture + inexpert stakeholders + turgid management = trebles all round!

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Redundancy

    No, not for the architects of the cock-up.

    I was wondering if one super-control centre could take over if another went down. Or were they meant to be largely infalliable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It does seem strange

      that, with the example of the internet as a resilient network with many nodes, there was a desire to concentrate these operations in fewer centres. Especially since this country has made itself such a popular target for terrorism! It also guarantees that the huge amounts of local knowledge that existing controllers have will largely go to waste. It's a bit like the obsession with 'rationalising' the Coastguard Service practically out of existence.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes, they could.

      Everything was designed to fail over from one call centre to another if there were problems or insufficient capacity, and there were multiple independent backup systems if the main triply-redundant system fell on its arse.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        No, they couldn't...

        ...because someone would say that there is a massive fire at the new Tescos, or that a Car has crashed into BHS...

        And the person in the call centre in Glasgow will ask "What is the post code?"

        But, yes in theory, anyone can direct a fire service from anywhere (as long as the person phoning knows the actual address)

        1. Starkadder

          No they can't

          (actual example). "There's a burning narrowboat on the canal about half a mile east of Bridge XX on the Kennet and Avon canal. There are injured people on board including one invalid with mobility problems. (Bridge XX is a farmer's bridge, not on a road, and doesn't have a postcode . . .)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Get with the programme.

          Addresses are not necessary for 999 calls these days. Multiple mechanisms are used to pinpoint the location, for example pretty much all phone operators in the UK, both landline and mobile, automatically provide location information to the 999 call centres based on the phone call origination point.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    get it sold

    It’s a shame that this failed as the idea of reducing the number of control rooms was a good one, (why are there 45 control rooms!?) and I find it baffling that it did fail as it’s not that complicated FFS. But now it has failed and been cancelled get all of the fecking stuff SOLD! Desks IT equipment, etc.

    1. Alister Silver badge
      FAIL

      @AC

      "It’s a shame that this failed as the idea of reducing the number of control rooms was a good one, (why are there 45 control rooms!?) "

      There speaks the voice of an idiot.

      Local knowledge is essential for quick dispatch of emergency service vehicles to the correct place. As various others have posted, if all you get in a phone call is "The New Tesco" then no amount of clever interactive maps and databases is going to find that location quickly.

      Centralising control means control staff who don't know the area where the call is coming from, which is the nearest station to the incident, etc, etc.

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge
      Joke

      While they are at it, they should park all the fire engines in one huge garage. The economies of scale would be unbelievable...

  21. dephormation.org.uk
    Meh

    Haven't we been here before?

    London Ambulance Service Computer Aided Despatch System back in 1992?

    1. Frederic Bloggs

      So they rewrote it and it had been working successfully for years since. I hear they are doing it again now, or getting someone else in. I shouldn't be surprised if there is the odd gremlin when they switch it on.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So Long

    and thanks for all the cash.

  23. Slugster
    Flame

    No heads will roll...

    As with all consultants - CapGemini, Capita, PA etc. - none of them would be brave enough to be a whistle blower. Why spoil such a party? All that dosh coming in every time you are at the client site so why on earth would any of them leave the trenches? During any fat project?

    I am sure we will hear of them blaming each other, saying how they knew things werent going well - if that was the case then say something at the time and not 5 years later. All parties are guilty with this one.

    This reminds me of the banking crisis - everyone knew it was all going to turn into a shape not unlike a pear but they all stood silent. Branch staff, hq staff...they all knew but said nothing. Why? Cos they earned good dosh signing people up to mortgages they couldnt pay etc. etc. We all know that story. But it is repeated with this project. Just turn up to the client site and switch off brain and switch on money counter.

    If EADS had any professionalism about them in the first place they wouldnt have taken on the work. This was outside of their skill set. They have had hard times recently and needed something big to get their teeth into. So they went for this....screwed up and got paid....

    robg has it exactly right: "so long and thanks for all the cash".

  24. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Flame

    @pop_corn

    "I was one of the consultants on the FiReControl project, being there for 2 years, and can answer some of the questions posed here.

    The main problem, as with most government IT projects, is that the initial requirements were very poor. There were several thousand requirements written down, which ranged from ones that were barely a sentence, to ones that were half a page of A4. These were further confused as the bid documentation was considered "in contract" to supply.

    It was a classic waterfall IT project fail, that sought to change the systems, processes, people, technology and even locations, all in one almighty big bang. It was never going to work."

    This seems to the *the* root cause of *most* govt IT projects They are *not* IT projects, they are business *change* projects, with a large (often *critical*) IT component.

    What's always baffled me is that the number of senior civil service k***heads and ministers who have the authority to *start* one of these would seem to be quite small yet it seem *impossible* to get them all together and explain to them that when *hundreds* of millions of £ of taxpayers money is at stake you need to have a pretty good idea of what you want it to do *before* you start rather than after you finish.

    No finger pointing, just going through a number of projects (actually they should all be from the British govt with all the names redacted) and showing how they f**k up, over and over again, in the *same* ways.

    Some might feel that just getting them in a single room, locking the door and leaving them there would be enough but that is unhelpful. It's better to treat the infected parts you can see, rather than wonder what new infection is growing in the dark.

  25. nyelvmark
    Meh

    Every commentard in this thread should read...

    C. Northcote Parkinson in "Parkinson's Law" - the part where a local government comittee needs to consider: 1. Approval of a new "Atomic power station" costing xxx million; 2. A proposed increase in the price of a cup of tea in the council canteen (or somesuch). You can probably guess which agenda item attracts the most animated debate.

    1. Pigeon

      I think it was bike sheds

      I've never seen so many people in agreement Depressing, isn't it.

  26. Cucumber C Face
    Mushroom

    Only half a billion flushed? Luxury!

    NHS National program for IT - 6 billion plus in. No sniff of cancellation and failing for all the same reaons.

    Fantasy specifications drawn up by clueless apparatchiks to satisfy the vanity of their political masters. Cue cynical management consultancies - contracts go to cheapest bidders - inevitably the ones with the least experience. Dishonest second tier vapourware suppliers duly signed up. Zero engagement with end users. Spin doctors promise more as the delivery dates slip.

    Pockets duly lined. Responsible parties move on to bigger and better jobs. And people complain about bankers. Half a dozen fewer of these projects and there would be no deficit :-(

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It'll be all okay....

    .... The public sector pension cuts will fund it!

  28. Steve 114
    FAIL

    Change first, not last

    A broader problem: the client hopes the sly catalyst for change they find hard to announce will be 'integrated' new IT. They can't specify what they want (because they haven't done 'change' yet), so they give the specifying to the consultant too. What nobody notices is that the plebs who actually do the work now don't want change. There are layers of them entrenched, each with different resistance agendas whether justified ('these things never work') or unjustified ('bosses will see what we're doing'). Result - institutional sabotage, and an ever-escalating volume of profitable change-notes until the buck stops. Fire, health, offender management - you name it, we've all been there and done one.

  29. Semaj
    Thumb Up

    At least they cancelled it now. Had Labour still been in I bet they would have kept it going and eating cash indefinitely.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Real Reason

    I saw the real reason for major project failure in Government. Many have been listed by other posters, but these are consequential, not fundamental.

    The no. 1 goal of the senior civil servants is to ensure they have a new project to work on once the current one's funding runs out. So they dream something up and then morph it into something that the politicians think is wonderful.

    This is how Government Connect came about. Just as the "E-Government" funding into LG via the then-ODPM came to an end, not-at-all-coincidentally.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm another FiReControl survivor, and still employed in the civil service (hence the AC). I was there until late 2007 and wasn't involved in the procurement. The messages being put out at the time was that it was a business change project enabled by IT. There was also a justified fear that we weren't properly engaging with the fire service which meant that we stepped up our efforts in 2006 & 2007, which might be part of the reason for the requirements waterfall. Although I do recall that there were thousands of pages of requirements (and associated test scripts) even in 2005.

    What made me leave the project was the incompetent senior manager parachuted into the project team around contract award to add capacity. All she did was remove it, and it was clear after a couple of months that she just didn't understand anything (even Dilbert's PHB would have been better).

  32. Alan Firminger

    Good discussion, raises a subsiduary question

    If I had a gps equipped mob and I dialed 999 would it automatically send my location ?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No. In some parts of the country the fire controls use signal location to work out where you are, but most controls don't have this. It was supposed to be one of the benefits of FiReControl, so everyone had the same capability. It would have sorted out "the new Tesco" or "opposite the Frog & Firkin" as a problem since the mobile phone location (and the fixed line location) would have at least given a clue to where people were.

      People not knowing where they are is a pretty common problem, especially with motoring incidents. I'm on the M6 north of Birmingham on the way to Scotland!

      1. Alan Firminger

        My thanks.

  33. shameek

    A clear case of moving goal posts - No project, no matter how well run or how experienced the resource facilitating the project will ever be able to provide a solution where you are changing the process at the same time. Define the process, standardise the process, ensure it works, then start to build a system around it. If it doesnt work as a manual process, its bound to fail as an IT project. At the end of the day the contractors are there to deliver to specification, no more, no less. If your specification is garbage, then you deserve everything you get. Unfortunately this means the taxpayer paying for inept systems and contracts.

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