The new Emergency Services Network is a predictable mess

The National Audit office has delivered a scathing assessment of the UK’s latest public project failure.

The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is yet another waste of public funds, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Designed to replace the legacy Airwave system run by Motorola with a new ESN using EE’s 4G network, the whole thing was delayed last year due to reasons and the NAO has just got around to working out what this is costing Joe Public. Here’s the summary table from the NAO report.

NAO ESN summary

“The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO. “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.”

How likely is that? The NAO seems pessimistic, stating that the revised target date is likely to slip, which would result in even more expenses. The NAO notes that EE seems to have raised its game since it last checked in on the project, but basic bits of technology such as the ability to communicate with aircraft are still not up to scratch. The following statements from the NAO announcement show just how unimpressed it is with how this project is being handled.

“The NAO does not think the Home Office has demonstrated that it understands the challenges emergency services face in introducing ESN, such as incurring extra costs by having to switch,” said the announcement. “Emergency services do not yet know how much money they will need to invest in infrastructure to improve the coverage or to make control rooms compatible. Some worry that this could place further financial pressure on other services they provide.

“There are also a number of commercial risks to ESN. The Home Office is currently renegotiating the programme’s main contracts with Motorola and EE, but these are behind schedule. Motorola needs to be carefully managed as it is both a main supplier to ESN and the owner of Airwave. It could therefore benefit financially from further delays if Airwave is extended. The Home Office is also yet to agree who will be responsible for running the ESN service once it is launched.

“The Home Office does not currently have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN, which comprises multiple pieces of technology that must be made to work together. The Home Office is planning to let a new contract to provide programme advisory and delivery services in 2019.

“The Home Office expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave in the long run, but the savings will not outweigh the costs until at least 2029. This is already seven years later than originally intended. The Home Office believes that ESN will bring £1.5 billion in financial and economic benefits by 2037. The largest economic benefit (£643 million) is  associated with increases in police productivity. Police representatives told the NAO that they had not agreed these figures with the Home Office.

“The NAO recommends that the Home Office test its overall programme plan to determine whether the new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave is achievable. The Home Office should also develop a contingency plan that sets out what it will do if the technology it is relying on does not work.”

The sad thing is that this is all entirely predictable and the only time UK public sector technology projects are surprising is when they deliver on time and on budget.

Home Office to delay 4G emergency service network by another three years

The Home Office has announced its cumbersome project to overhaul the Emergency Services Network (ESN) with a 4G network has been set back by another few years.

After negotiating a month-by-month contract with Motorola to keep its aging digital radio network Airwave alive, the Home Office has signed a new contract to extend this partnership through to 2022. Alongside this damning signature, the Motorola Solutions ESN agreement will be extended by 30 months through the end of 2024, to allow for a new phased implementation of EE’s 4G ESN. Just to put things in perspective, the initial plan was to have the network up and running by mid-2017.

“We are proud to support the Home Office on its new delivery approach for ESN while at the same time ensuring public safety users have the Airwave communications network they need,” said Kelly Mark, EVP of services and software at Motorola Solutions. “We have been working closely with the Home Office to ensure that our services are aligned with this new phased deployment and timeline for ESN.”

The new incremental approach means police, fire and rescue services, ambulance services and other users will be able to use data services over the network from early next year, with voice capabilities at some undefined point in the future. Of course, this is the sort of efficiency and accuracy many have come to expect from the UK government.

Keeping track of what is going on with the ESN is a tricky task; the rollout plan has changed more times than a teenagers mood.

Back when the initiative was initially launched, the plan was to give the emergency services the communications capability to match and exceed what they enjoy as private individuals. When the final contracts were issued to Motorola, to provide the public safety applications and user services, and EE, to provide an enhanced radio access service with nationwide coverage, the project was timetabled for completion by mid-2017. At the time, Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice & Victims, boasted the new network would save the government £1 million a day.

The ESN is to be built on EE’s commercial network, the largest 4G mobile network in the UK with the emergency services and other bodies to benefit from a dedicated core network designed to ensure priority use of the EE commercial network. The network will provide geographical coverage along major and minor roads, and special coverage locations; selected buildings, road tunnels and the London Underground for example, as well as 12 miles out to sea covering UK territorial waters and air-to-ground communications in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the new features will include live video from body worn cameras transmitted from crime scenes or high definition images to allow hospital consultants to make remote diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

After a scathing review from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), this deployment date was pushed back to end-2019, and then a further nine months to September 2020. The party line is now the programme will save £200 million per year, considerably less than the initial promise from Penning. Perhaps such delays should have been expected from the beginning. Aside from this being a government initiative, the National Audit Office warned in September 2016 progress was five months behind schedule, not leaving enough time for the relevant users to effective test the network and learn from other authorities.

This is of course not the first time a government project has spiralled into incompetence. The abandoned NHS patient record system of yesteryear proved nothing but a disaster, swallowing more than £10 billion in public funds and delivering about as much satisfaction as warm milk on an August afternoon. At the time, MP Richard Bacon suggested “this saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”, but this was just another in a long line of disasters which included the child support agency, leaving thousands of families without cash, chaos within the passport agency and a tax credit system which was left open to fraud.

With the latest push-back from the Home Office, the project is doing nothing but enforcing the stereotype of civil servants and the capabilities of the public sector.