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Home Office review of ESN programme hints at more agile delivery approach

David Bicknell Published 22 February 2018

Review by new CDDTO Joanna Davinson considers getting ‘capability’, particularly data, into hands of emergency services users hands earlier to build confidence and get feedback as delayed project rolls out


The latest Public Accounts Committee (PAC) review into progress towards the creation of the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network progress to modernise emergency services’ communications has been told the Home Office is widening an operational review it is carrying out into the project.

The review is being carried out by new Home Office chief digital, data and technology officer Joanna Davinson’s team to which the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) will now report. Previously, it reported into the Crime, Police and Fire group.

The PAC review, the fourth such session since a critical National Audit Office (NAO) report into the project in 2016, was supposed to hear evidence from Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam following his and senior responsible owner Stephen Webb’s appearance before the committee in November.

But Rutnam was unable to attend the latest hearing through illness and was replaced by Davinson. The PAC referred to a letter from Rutnam which it said, “does bring us up to speed in some respects but is also deeply unsatisfactory in other ways.” The PAC was unhappy that a review promised by Putnam which was supposed to report in January had first been put back and then put back further as part of the new, wider review.

The PAC, pressed Davinson, who generally equipped herself well in front of the committee, as to when the review would be completed.

She said, “As you know the programme is a series of projects. We’re working through each of those projects and really getting underneath the dependencies and the critical paths for each of those projects so that we can build our level of confidence in the integrated project plan.

“If we look at where we have had problems in the past, it has generally been where we have not had enough detail to allow us to sufficiently understand the relationships between the different parts of the programme.

“So we are going though that work now. In addition we’re looking at alternative approaches to delivery and specifically how can we get some capability out into the hands of the users early so that we can do two things. One is to help the users build confidence that we are actually delivering real stuff. And that give us an opportunity to get feedback as well.

“But also there are some categories of users who could capture some real benefit early, the users who, for example, that just want the data component. We re going through some detailed work on those aspects. We then need to reflect that in a commercial discussion with the suppliers and in particular around the Airwave extension. We expect to be able to complete all of that work by the summer."

Davinson added, “One of the things that I brought in with my experience of having run large programmes before is that in doing these kind of ‘resets’ it is really important to bottom out the detail and really understand where those dependencies lie.”

The committee asked NAO Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse to instigate its own review of the project once Davinson’s own Home Office review had been completed, with the NAO review probably beginning in the autumn.

Ever vigilant, Morse homed in on Davinson’s suggestion that some users only want the data and asked for further clarification.

Davinson said, “There are some users who do not currently use the voice system. The example that we pick up on is ambulance. There are some categories of ambulance user that just want access to the data solution. We are going through that conversation with users at the moment and that is one of the things that is taking time to understand."

Earlier Webb, who was more vigorously pressed by the committee as a “frequent flyer” before it, said agreement had been reached between Vodafone and Motorola on a key contingency element of the project.

He said, “There has been some fairly careful testing of the products. Six months of testing. The contract has now been signed and we understand the solution will be ready for the March 2020 date by which point Vodafone were looking to withdraw the old TDM service."  

Replying to queries on costs, he said, “This is a subcontractor for Motorola-Airwave. There’s no additional cost for us. Essentially Vodafone is building this new solution in order to enable them to retire their old solution. We will expect them to meet that (March 2020) timescale and not to keep the old solution going for longer.”

Responding further to committee concern about his being “hands off” about the Vodafone-Motorola relationship, Webb insisted, “We absolutely hold Motorola to account to deliver this service. We’re buying a service. As part of that they have a number of relationships with subcontractors.

“They can’t do it all themselves, they need additional support, additional technology. It has always been the case that they were required contractually to keep the service going. This was clearly going to be a problem for them for keeping the service going had they not managed to resolve it. They have done. We are not being complacent about it and were going to want to look at the rollout.”

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