Emergency Service Network £3.1bn Over Budget

The Home Office has been chastised by the National Audit Office (NAO) over the slow delivery of the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The project is £3.1bn over budget, the NAO warned, and it said that the “Home Office’s management of this critical programme has represented poor value for money.”

The ESN is the successor to the existing system used by police, fire and other emergency organisations in the UK, which is a purpose-built network operated by Motorola subsidiary Airwave and built on the TETRA specification.

Image credit: Police Scotland

Much delayed

ESN was intended to save money by sharing an existing commercial 4G network – unlike Airwave, which is fully dedicated to its users. ESN is also thought to be able to allow for the better use of mobile data than Airwave.

But the entire ESN project has been in trouble for a while now.

As far back as 2016 the NAO had expressed concern over the Home Office’s strategy, and it had called the ESN programme “high-risk”.

Indeed, the project has faced repeated delays, after its implementation was initially slated to begin in the middle of 2017.

But it was delayed and this meant that the Home Office in 2017 announced that all Airwave contracts had been extended until the end of 2019. It also warned those Airwave contracts could be extended after this date if necessary.

And then last year the Home Office admitted that the proposed cost savings on ESN had been “delayed” by the project’s cost overruns.

And now the NAO has once again raised concerns about the project in a new report.

Home Office management

“In September 2018, the Home Office announced a ‘reset’ of its approach, based on a phased introduction of ESN services, rather than launching the whole programme at once,” the NAO wrote. “This involved revising the whole programme, for example to extend timetables and renegotiate contracts, a process which is still ongoing at the time of writing.”

The NAO pointed to its warning in 2016 that the project was high risk, and the Home Office’s subsequent failure to manage these risks has led to delays.

“The delays also mean introducing ESN is now forecast to cost £3.1 billion more than planned, and this forecast is highly uncertain,” warned the NAO. “To date, the Home Office’s management of this critical programme has represented poor value for money.”

“The Home Office, through its reset, has resolved only some of the issues,” it added. “The Home Office does not yet have a robust and sufficiently detailed plan that demonstrates that it understands the challenges faced by emergency services in introducing ESN, and it is also not clear how the various programme components of ESN will be integrated successfully. This lack of understanding creates a risk that poor decisions will be made and further ‘resets’ will be needed in future.”

The NAO then went to state there were “still significant risks” and, “based on past performance, it seems unlikely that ESN can be delivered by the target date of 2022.”

The NAO called on the Home Office to develop a comprehensive, integrated plan that addresses the significant uncertainties that remain.

“The delayed Emergency Services Network is likely to be even later than expected and the government’s already increased forecast costs are highly uncertain,” the NAO concluded.

The ESN underwent its first live prioritisation tests on EE’s 4G network in February 2018.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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