The Home Office still does not have its act together for the implementation of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
It says the network, which is set to replace Airwave for emergency services around Great Britain, is unlikely to be ready by its current deadline of 2022 – which is three years later than the original date – and that the costs are going to outweigh the savings until at least 2029 – seven years later than originally intended.
The existing costs are now estimated at £9.3 billion, up from an initial estimate of £6.2 billion. In addition, while the Home Office has predicted £1.5 billion in economic benefits by 2037, £643 million in this is in increased police productivity, but this has not been agreed with police forces.
This is all making it poor value for taxpayers, according to the NAO.
It all prompts the auditor to recommend that the Home Office should test its programme plan to see if the existing deadlines are achievable, and make a priority of deciding how the integration of different elements of the ESN will be carried out.
It also needs to work with other sponsors and users to develop the arrangements for managing the network once it is fully operational; and develop a contingency plan in case the technology does not work.
Another requirement is to carefully manage the contractual position of Motorola, which is the owner of Airwave and a main supplier to the ESN and could possibly benefit from programme delays.
The initial shortcomings were identified in an independent review commissioned by the Home Office in 2017. They included the fact that Motorola, which is providing the software, and EE, which is providing priority access for emergency services to its commercial 4G network, had solutions based on different versions of the technical standards.
There were also disagreements between the Home Office and Motorola about the true scope of the company’s role, and challenges in locking down the specification for software and user services. Further problems resulted from the late delivery of related projects such as for handsets and vehicle equipment.
While the department has been addressing these issues, the report says there are still a number of significant risks. These include that the key technology is not yet proven in real world conditions, notably the ‘push-to-talk’ capability of handsets, and that there is still no clarity about how the various elements of ESN will work together as a coherent system.
There is also uncertainty around the rate of take-up as long as Airwave is still available, prompted by doubts about the coverage of the ESN, whether it will be sufficiently resilient and whether emergency services have time to integrate it into their control rooms.
Commercial risks include emergency services’ concerns about the costs of implementation, a lengthy process in renegotiating the main contracts, and the lack of agreement on who will be responsible for the network when it goes live.
Overall, the NAO does not think the Home Office has demonstrated that it understands the challenges emergency services face in beginning to use the ESN and lacks the internal capability to bring it all together effectively.
The Home Office plans to let a new contract on programme advisory and delivery services in the middle of this year to deal to bring the pieces together.
Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe.
“The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”
The report has also prompted a warning from Meg Hillier MP, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, that the Home Office “must take an urgent and honest examination of its ability to deliver to its new schedule for this critical project.”
A total of 470 organisations are expected to use the ESN when it is complete, including all 107 police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain.
Picture from Scott Davidson (modified), CC 2.0 via flickr