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Public Accounts Committee rebukes Home Office over Emergency Services Network

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Image source: Gush

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has sharply criticised the Home Office for a lack of clear planning and ‘optimism bias’ in its programme to develop the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

It has published a report on the programme, highlighting repeated resets and delays and saying this is creating significant costs for the emergency services.

This comes after a report published in March by the National Audit Office emphasised that it is still unclear when the ESN will be ready for use.

The ESN is intended to replace the Airwave network for emergency services, which is regarded as reliable but expensive and does not provide modern data services. The PAC report says the delays have created significant costs for emergency services in continuing to run Airwave, and that they have temporarily disbanded their ESN teams and found their own ways to access mobile data.

It says the Home Office needs to replace key supplier Motorola Solutions and until a new one is in place can only make limited further progress. It believes the necessary technology is now available on the market, but the PAC is concerned that even with a new supplier the programme will remain high risk.

Several challenges

Among the challenges are integrating the elements of the ESN, testing the technology, providing the right level of coverage and resilience, and transitioning all emergency services onto the new network. In addition, the department has not yet set a new deadline for the programme to be completed.

The PAC says the Home Office’s continued optimism is “disconnected from reality”, it does not have a clear delivery plan and there is not yet evidence that the technology will work as well as Airwave.

It adds that even if the programme gets back on track it will take at least 10 years before savings start to justify its costs. Also, extending the role of EE, which is establishing the main network, may replicate some of the issues with Airwave.

Optimism bias

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier MP said: “The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in Government. There has never been a realistic plan for ESN and no evidence that it will work as well as the current system.

“Assertions from the Home Office that it will simply ‘crack on’ with the project are disconnected from the reality, and emergency services cannot be left to pick up the tab for continued delays. With £2 billion already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad.

“A clear direction must of course be established for this long delayed project, but ESN raises wider issues on the approach to public procurement.

“The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal, but will be pursuing it regardless. New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor.

“The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the Government is still accountable for value for money when it does so.”

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