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Home Office reassures emergency services and Whitehall watchdogs over ESN “risk”

David Bicknell Published 15 September 2016

Home Office accepts NAO report recommendations but “does not agree” on “judgement about the Department’s acknowledgement of programme’s risk”


The Home Office last night moved swiftly in response to criticism from the National Audit Office of the risks associated with its plans to replace the existing communications system for the three emergency services in the field.

The Home Office’s current plan is that the emergency services will start moving onto the new network in September 2017, with the process due to be completed in December 2019.

The department has stressed that it is the emergency services themselves that will decide following “stringent” testing, when the new Emergency Services Network {ESN} meets the requirements they have set.

It has also maintained that it has “detailed” contingency plans in place. The government has extended all contracts under the existing Airwave system to December 31 2019. It is understood that should any emergency services users decide that ESN is not ready by that point, the Home Office has agreed with Motorola a fixed monthly price for extending Airwave coverage beyond that date.

In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson told Government Computing, “We are developing the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) because it will help keep people safe, providing the dedicated teams who work so hard to protect the public and save lives with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world.

“It will ensure that police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, and will be a more capable and more flexible communications network than the existing Airwave system. As the National Audit Office’s report has itself concluded, ESN is the right direction strategically for maximising these benefits.

“The timescale for ESN is deliberately ambitious because we want to maximise the benefits it will bring to the public and we have comprehensive risk management tools in place as well as the best possible expertise to design, build, test and roll out the new network.”

The Home Office set up the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme in 2011 to look at options to replace the system currently provided by Airwave Solutions through contracts that expire in 2019.

ESN is the government’s chosen option to replace the Airwave service and it anticipates that ESN will save money by sharing the existing commercial 4G network, in comparison to the Airwave network, which is fully dedicated to public sector use.

It believes ESN will replace the Airwave service with a service that “matches it in all respects”; makes high-speed data more readily available to the emergency services to improve their performance; provides more flexibility to take advantage of new technologies as they emerge; and costs less.

Three main contracts for the provision of ESN were awarded in 2015 to Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), Motorola Solutions, and EE.

The NAO’s detailed report "Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network”, published today, is the first independent study of how the Home Office’s ESN programme is progressing. The NAO also commissioned international comparator work from public sector ICT research company Kable, which discussed first responder solutions in the UK and internationally.

The NAO applauded the ESN programme for having a “positive delivery-focused culture that has helped it retain staff and manage issues as they have emerged, as well benefiting from stability in staffing at both senior and junior levels. However, it is clear that it is concerned about the risks of ESN.

 It said, “ESN is inherently high risk and such an approach has not yet been used, nationwide, anywhere in the world. There are three main categories of risk associated with ESN: technical; user take-up; and commercial arrangements. These roughly align to the three major phases of the programme: design, build and test; transition; and operate. There is also an overarching risk due to the ambitious nature of the timeline adopted by the programme. Only South Korea is currently seeking to deploy a solution similar to ESN nationwide, but starts from a better base with significantly greater 4G coverage.”

The NAO’s concern was backed by a statement from Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee. She said, “The Home Office must not underestimate the risks of delivering the new Emergency Services Network. A lack of independent telecoms expertise on the programme board and an ambitious and potentially unrealistic timeframe for delivery concern me. The Home Office cannot afford to get this wrong.”

In its report, the NAO described ESN as “technically cutting edge”, adding that there are some significant technical challenges to delivering it.

Increasing the percentage of Great Britain’s landmass covered by EE’s network from 70% (as at July 2016) to 97% . The work to do this is shared between EE and the programme and their current projection is that sufficient coverage will be available by September 2017.

Developing handheld and vehicle-mounted devices that will work with ESN as no suitable devices currently exist.

Developing new push-to-talk software to enable ‘radio-like’ communications between emergency services personnel and control rooms.

Implementing the software and protocols that are needed to give emergency services personnel priority over commercial users of EE’s network.

Delivery by the programme against these technical challenges is by no means certain and, while total failure seems unlikely, there remains a risk that the programme will not be able to overcome these challenges for the cost or timetable proposed in the full business case, or to the satisfaction of users, the NAO said.

The NAO suggested that the ESN programme is behind schedule compared to the full business case and it has responded by squeezing the time available rather than extending the overall time frame.

The NAO also suggested that the programme awarded contracts two months later than it expected in its full business case. Since contract award the programme delivered detailed designs three months late and has delayed the delivery of some elements of functionality by eight months.

It argued that the programme is therefore between five and ten months behind the full business case. “Programme officials consider that it has missed milestones due to factors outside their control. It has so far been reluctant to extend the Airwave contract and has instead reduced the time available to move the emergency services onto ESN by three months and introduced a more gradual approach to building and testing, the NAO said.

Overall, the NAO warned, the programme, the Home Office and other sponsor bodies appear to be underrating the seriousness of the risks ESN poses. It said, “The emergency services demonstrated to us a low risk-appetite when it comes to deciding whether to transition to ESN. For example, they talked to us about plans to independently test ESN coverage because they were not convinced by the programme’s plans. By contrast, technology was not one of the top three risks raised with us by programme staff.

“Since the beginning of 2016, the Home Office has downgraded the risk of delivering ESN twice because it considered the risks to be under control. This meant that by June 2016 ESN did not feature on the list of risks escalated to the Home Office’s management board. We consider that, despite the programme’s mitigations, ESN remains an inherently high-risk programme that will require the highest levels of senior oversight throughout its lifetime.”

In its conclusions, the NAO said the communication systems used by the emergency services “can literally make the difference between life and death for members of the public and the services themselves. The existing system, provided by Airwave, works but at £1,300 per device is expensive. The need to save money and exit a difficult commercial relationship with Airwave has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world and carries significant implementation risk. ESN is the right direction strategically but we are concerned that the risks with getting there are under rated in the Home Office and elsewhere.”

Unusually, the NAO report carried a dissenting note from the Home Office in response to some of the NAO’s findings. The note said, “The Home Office has asked us to record that they have adopted their approach to equip the emergency services with the modern data communications capabilities they need and so welcomes the report’s key finding that ESN is the right direction strategically. The Department has also accepted the key recommendations. However, the Home Office does not agree with the NAO’s judgement about the Department’s acknowledgement of the programme’s risk, on incentives on users to transition, or the scale of benefits in the business case, considering that the programme and commercial approach are designed to maximise value for money and comply with procurement law.”

The Kable comparator report accompanying the NAO report suggested that the answer to the question: “Is the proposed ESMCP solution the most advanced in the world?” is ‘yes’.

It said, “Through the international comparator projects it is clear that challenges lie ahead for ESMCP which risk delaying or descoping the project. South Korea is starting from a far-higher commercial coverage base (97%) versus the UK (50%). Geography is a significant hindrance, even for countries using a ‘proven’ technology and of a similar nature to the UK, such as Germany. The challenge for the UK, given its lower coverage is to ensure that network reach is maintained, as it is here where agency response is most critical. Both commercial and dedicated public safety network infrastructure can be affected by unforeseen events, particularly in rural locations.”

“Locally driven agency provision also complicates rollouts, as evidenced in Germany and the US. With PCCs taking on fire brigades, ESMCP’s success is dependent on local stakeholders who may disrupt the national project if they do not believe the programme is best for local residents. The success of any given public safety network relies on the support of its user groups and through effective governance arrangements. Successful projects manage to convince users of their benefits through effective engagement, messaging and training.”

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