The Home Office’s ongoing project to update the communications system supporting all of the emergency services in England, Scotland and Wales is facing a number of challenges - namely poor management by the department, extensive delays, and despite being billions of pounds over budget, could well end up not being value for money.
These are the conclusions of MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee, which once again has released a report that highlights a number of themes that are common across government IT project failures, which have been well known for over a decade.
In 2015 the Home Office set out to replace the Airwave radio system, which is currently used by all 107 emergency service organisations in England, Scotland and Wales to communicate in the field. The replacement system, the Emergency Services Network (ESN), was pitched to be as least as good as Airwave, add 4G mobile data capabilities and be far cheaper.
The Home Office is responsible for the delivery of the ESN programme. In 2015, the Department awarded contracts for the main parts of ESN to EE and Motorola and appointed KBR to be the Department’s delivery partner. ESN was due to be completed by December 2019 at which point Airwave, owned by Motorola since 2016, would be turned off.
In September 2018, the Department announced that it would ‘reset’ (we’ve heard that before) ESN and would launch it in several stages. This involved changes throughout the programme, including a renegotiation of contracts with EE and Motorola and delaying the point at which ESN is expected to replace Airwave to December 2022.
The cost of building and running ESN until 2037 is now expected to be £9.3 billion, an increase of £3.1 billion since the 2015 business case.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have said that they are not yet convinced that the Home Office has done enough to turn the project around, despite the ‘reset’, and that the department does not have the skills to make it work.
The Committee added that the programme faces “substantial levels of technical and commercial risk” and that it is almost inevitable that there will be further delays and cost increases.
Chair of the Committee, Meg Hillier MP, 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 on 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.
Based on the evidence received, the Committee has compiled a list of conclusions and recommendations for the Home Office. These include:
Despite a reset, a 3 year delay and being £3.1 billion over budget, the Home Office still does not have an integrated plan for how and when each emergency service will deploy ESN. Technology for some parts of ESN is still not ready and the Home Office has extended the Airwave contract to December 2022, but is describing this as a “not before” date, rather than a realistic target for completion. The Committee wants the department to set out, bu October 2019, a detailed, achievable integrated plan, including a realistic date for turning off Airwave.
The Committee highlights an unhealthy ‘good news’ culture within the Home Office, which has meant that it failed to heed warning signs that the programme was undeliverable. MPs want written confirmation of the steps taken by the Home Office to: improve senior oversight of the programme; ensure assumptions are subject to appropriate challenge; and to make sure the findings of independent assurance reviews are widely shared and taken seriously.
The Home Office’s mismanagement of the programme means the emergency services do not yet have confidence that ESN will provide a service that will meet their needs. The department has said that it will not force users to accept ESN until they all grew that it is ‘as good’ as Airwave, but it has not defined what this means with sufficient clarity. The Committee has urged the Home Office, without delay, to agree with users a set of specific and detailed criteria that will be used to determine when ESN is ready to replace Airwave, and who will ultimately decide when those criteria are met.
The critical role of making all the different elements of ESN work seamlessly together has now passed to the Home Office, after it cut ties with delivery partner KBR. However, the Committee is unconvinced that the department has sufficient skills to undertake this role. As a result, before the Home Office contracts with a new delivery partner, it should analyse the skills and tasks needed to integrate ESN, identify any skills gaps, and learn from the failings of KBR.
The Committee notes that delays to the Home Office’s revised business case for ESN and the prospect of further increases in cost raises doubts over the value for money case for ESN. It has urged the department to ensure it delivers a revised and approved business case, which both the emergency services and the other founders of ESN support, by the end of 2019 at the latest. This should include an appraisal of when continuing to spend money on ESN ceases to be value for money and should set out a ‘plan B’ for what would happen if that point was reached.
We’ve been here many times before and I’m sure this won’t be the last Public Accounts Committee highlighting numerous failures relating to a high profile government technology project. It seems that lessons are never truly learned.