Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said it is not convinced that the Home Office has turned around the long delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) programme.
It has published a report on the issue that predicts further delays and cost increases, saying the delivery plan is not sufficiently robust and the department lacks the skills to make it work.
The report intensifies the pressure on the Home Office following the National Audit Office’s recent criticisms of the programme in its own report.
The programme to deliver the ESN – the communications network for emergency services to replace Airwave – is now three years late and expected to cost at least £3.1 billion more than £6.2 billion originally estimated.
The PAC report says the Home Office’s original approach was far too optimistic given the level of risk, with insufficient governance arrangements, and the ‘reset’ announced in 2018 has not done enough. There are still substantial levels of technical and commercial risk and a lack of confidence among services that will use the network.
Among the contributing factors has been a ‘good news’ culture in the department that meant it failed to heed warning signals that the programme was undeliverable.
It also highlights the position of one supplier, Motorola, saying it is involved in the old and new contracts “leading to perverse incentives and putting the department in a weak negotiating position”.
The PAC has published a series of recommendations for the Home Office, including the provision of a detailed, achieve programme by October of this year that sets a realistic date for turning off Airwave. It should also improve senior oversight, ensure its assumptions to open to challenge, and take independent assurance reviews seriously.
Other recommendations are to agree with users a set of criterial for when ESN will replace Airwave, analyse the skills needed to integrate the new network, inform the committee by October how it will manage the risks presented by Motorola’s position, and produce a revised business supported by the emergency services and other funders. This should include an appraisal of when spending more on the programme ceases to provide value for money and a plan B for what would happen if that point is reached.
PAC chair Meg Hillier MP (pictured) said: “The endless delay in delivering a new system for our emergency services to communicate and share data is creating a crisis of confidence as police, fire and ambulance no longer have trust in the new system being delivered.
“Neither the emergency services, nor the PAC, are convinced that the Home office has a credible plan to deliver a reliable and effective service anytime soon. In the meantime services are having to find work arounds and buy new equipment to prop up the old Airwave system.
“The Home Office’s reset of the Emergency Services Network programme has failed to deliver any more certainty. The financial benefits originally predicted for this programme are rapidly evaporating and it will not now realise cost savings, on the most optimistic forecasts, for at least a decade.
“The key technology behind the ESN is not yet fully proven and we were not convinced that the Home Office has the capability and plans to deliver a coherent single system that provides the functionality and dependability the emergency services demand.”
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0