The department cannot say when the multibillion pound platform will finally be ready or how much it will eventually cost – but somehow remains ‘far too optimistic’, according to PAC report
The Home Office’s work on the troubled Emergency Services Network programme is increasingly “disconnected from reality”, according to a damning report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.
The committee’s investigations find that the “department currently has no firm estimates of when it will finish building ESN or what it will cost”.
The network was initially slated to fully replace the outgoing Airwave network in 2019, with overall delivery costs of £6bn. Even in the best-case scenario, the new platform will now go live at least a decade late and at doubled the originally projected cost – with £2bn of public money already spent.
The programme underwent a sweeping reset in 2018 and, late last year, another significant delay came in the form of the departure from the project of Motorola Solutions – with which the Home Office had a £400m contract to deliver core push-to-talk voice services. Terminating this engagement two years early cost the department £45m and a replacement provider is not expected to be appointed until next spring.
Despite such long-standing troubles, the PAC report’s first of six main conclusions is that “the department is still far too optimistic about both the progress it has made and the challenges ahead, and therefore risks repeating the same mistakes again”.
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To address this concern, MPs recommend that, once a deal has been awarded to a supplier to replace Motorola, the Home Office should allow ESN’s Independent Assurance Panel to examine the project’s “progress and risks” and release this assessment publicly.
PAC’s second conclusion is that the ongoing delays to delivery continue to create “significant cost for the emergency services who must pay to fund ESN and to maintain Airwave for longer”.
To date, the department has “not created any specific mechanism for helping emergency services bear the extra costs created by failing to deliver ESN”.
As part of a new and updated business case for the project to be published next year, the department should set out measures that could assist with funding local police, fire and NHS bodies in buying new Airwave kit, as well as supporting transition activities.
This money could come from the £200m-a-year savings that will be created by the recent decision by the Competition and Markets Authority to impose cost controls on Motorola, which also owns the Airwave network. An investigation by the regulator – which Motorola has said it intends to appeal – found that the firm had been able to overcharge the Home Office on account of a monopoly position.
Perhaps most damning is the committee’s third conclusion, which finds that “the department cannot yet prove to the emergency services that ESN will be good enough to replace Airwave”.
By the end of this year, MPs ask that the Home Office provides them with plans setting out “the main building blocks of ESN… including when they will be prototyped, built, and tested in real world conditions, and which includes sufficient time for testing by emergency services, and allows feedback to be incorporated into the final version of ESN”.
The committee also reported lingering concerns that “the department does not have the capability to successfully bring the various elements of ESN together”.
Before an agreement is signed with the replacement supplier of push-to-talk services, the Home Office should seek external assessment of the credibility of the project’s integration plan and the sufficiency of resources to make it a reality.
MPs’ penultimate conclusion is that there remains a lack of “clearly defined responsibilities or plans in place for operating ESN as a live service, raising questions about whether ESN will provide the intended benefits for the emergency services”.
In the new business case, expected to be published next year, the Home Office must set out such plans – after first ensuring that they meet the needs of emergency services organisations.
The final finding is that the existing arrangement with EE for the delivery of connectivity infrastructure and mobile services risks creating the same monopoly position that – according to regulator – Motorola has taken advantage of in its delivery of Airwave.
The mobile network operator has been under contract with the Home Office since 2015 and, as of the most recent extension, remains so until the end of 2024. By that time, the department expects to have spent £826.75m via the deal – which is set to be extended further, without any competitive process, according to the PAC report.
“Although [EE] has made progress extending network coverage, it has not delivered on time, and still has work to complete,” MPs added. “While the department remains tied into a single network provider, emergency services cannot benefit from services provided by other operators. The department claims it will be able to introduce competition later, because all its suppliers are following telecommunications standards, but incompatible assumptions made by different ESN suppliers about which telecommunication standards would be used was one of the issues that led to the 2018 reset.”
To address this issue, it is recommended that the Home Office ensures the next extension of the EE contract “includes sufficient protection against EE making excessive profits and requires all infrastructure to fully comply with telecommunications standards and allows other network suppliers can be introduced in future”.
‘Classic case of optimism bias’
Since work on the project got underway, the Public Accounts Committee has grilled departmental representatives on its progress 13 times, and published three reports – each of which found the “programme to be high risk and raising concerns about the department’s ability to manage those risks”.
Throughout these investigations, the committee has been chaired by Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.
“Although [EE] has made progress extending network coverage, it has not delivered on time, and still has work to complete. While the department remains tied into a single network provider, emergency services cannot benefit from services provided by other operators.”PAC report
Following the publication of the latest report, she 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 £2bn already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad.”
She added: “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.”
In response, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The Home Office and Motorola mutually agreed to terminate the contract to provide services for the Emergency Services Network last December. We have agreed that Motorola will provide some services for twelve months following this date. The Home Office is making good progress in procuring a new user services supplier.”