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Firecontrol procurement failure: lessons for the public sector

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For the second time, the Fire Service’s attempts to link the infrastructure used at separate sites has fallen short of expectations, with officials reporting the new FireControl project has already exceeded its allocated budget and is expecting significant delays. The explanation tentatively given for the unforeseen problems is a lack of IT skills and procurement expertise, believed to be resulting in inefficiencies throughout the breadth of the project. As Bid Manager of a managed services provider with a number of public sector customers, I’d like to draw on my experience in public sector service procurement to shed light on where the project may have gone wrong, and what future projects can do to avoid similar failings.

The project was first attempted in 2004 but was abandoned after a £469 million loss referred to as a ‘catastrophic failure’ by industry experts. It is now in its second iteration, with the government allocating a new budget of £81 million to the achieving of interoperability and resilience between fire and rescue control rooms. Though the capital expenditure is large, project coordinators anticipated recurring savings of £126 million, making the investment a logical one, however it has this month been revealed that a lack of IT skills and understanding of procurement procedures is causing it to fall short of its savings and rollout targets before it has even reached completion. The undertaking, which aims to link the national fire control system’s infrastructure into nine regional centres, is being organised by 22 local teams, with no overarching body coordinating the separate groups. It has been reported that the size of the teams involved has left them unable to get good deals from suppliers, upping costs accordingly, with their lack of understanding also resulting in inefficient contract monitoring. The failure of the first ‘FiReControl’ project was used by G-Cloud proponents as a case study to highlight both the danger of IT ‘mega-projects,’ and the associated value of a framework for SMEs to tender for public sector service provision. So why is the second project succumbing to the same fate as the last?

Adoption rates of the G-Cloud framework have not been as impressive as anticipated, with many public sector organisations fearful of the system because it requires them to change the way they are used to operating. However, the G-Cloud was designed to encourage a more dynamic supplier market place, supporting emerging suppliers, and its merits are ample. Without using the framework, the Fire Service would struggle to access small to medium service providers, and while larger service providers have the big-brand pull, it is often smaller providers that have the expertise and resource available to provide a truly tailored solution, able to effectively meet the requirements of a project that is as diverse as this, with competitive pricing still available. A further benefit of choosing a smaller provider is the addition of the ‘personal touch.’ As such organisations will be used to working with IT departments who are perhaps less well-versed in procurement and virtualised infrastructure, they will rarely shy away from open discussions, offering motive-free advice to ensure the project is meeting its objectives in the most cost and resource efficient way possible. Though it is not clear whether the Fire Service is using the G-Cloud framework to support the project, its use should in theory rule out a number of the problems currently being encountered, including a lack of IT skill leading to the implementation of unsuitable services.

The G-Cloud framework has a number of benefits, but it is also important to remember the IT department’s role in project success. Without one overarching project manager, it seems unlikely that all teams will be working towards the same end goal, a decision which could further contribute to the problems created by lack of procurement procedure awareness. Aligning the teams’ objectives and ensuring the procurement process used is both efficient and fair would hopefully allow the budget to be brought underhand before it can spiral further out of control, saving the second project from suffering a similar fate to the first.

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