National Audit Office: ESN forecast to cost £3.1bn more than planned
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
The National Audit Office has highlighted the risk that the Airwave network, which currently provides emergency services with mission-critical voice, might not be shut down until the end of 2026

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a new report on the work to deliver the Emergency Services Network (ESN), in which it notes that “implementing ESN is now expected to cost £3.1 billion more than forecast in 2015, and the revised forecast costs are highly uncertain”.

In total, the project is expected to cost up to £9.3 billion to 2037, up 49 per cent from the figure given by the Home Office in its 2015 business case. The Home Office has delayed approving the business case for the reset until later this year. It is also expecting to revise its cost forecast later in 2019.

However, the Home Office still expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave in the long-term, expecting the project to break-even in July 2029, seven years later than initially planned (assuming it now stays on track) and the total financial and economic savings are expected to be £1.5 billion in the period to 2037. That said, the NAO notes that the Home Office has not revised the assumptions regarding police efficiency savings from its 2015 business case and that the adoption of mobile technology by police forces since then “means the impact of ESN on police productivity (the largest forecast economic benefit) may now be less than the predicted efficiency saving of five minutes per officer per shift.”

The Home Office announced a reset of its approach to ESN delivery in September 2018, based on a phased introduction of ESN services as opposed to the ‘big bang’ transition strategy it had previously pursued (in which each region would adopt all of the ESN functionality in one go while migrating off Airwave). Under the new plan, the Home Office plans to complete ESN by the planned Airwave switch-off date of 2022, but the NAO report says that the emergency services consider the 27 months this provides for transition to be unrealistic and four years will be needed.

This in addition to recent Home Office risk assessments that have flagged that emergency services’ potential unwillingness to transition until their control rooms have been upgraded for the service and the one year’s notice that would need to be given to turn off Airwave after the last force has transitioned to ESN, have led the NAO to “estimate that under a potential ‘near worst-case’ scenario, the Airwave shut-down could be delayed by four years” to December 2026.

The NAO report also notes that while the emergency services expect ESN to be as resilient as Airwave, a ministerial decision is expected to allow ESN to not have the same ability to withstand power cuts as Airwave. Other user concerns identified by the Home Office, which the NAO has also flagged with a red risk rating (as of March 2019, indicating major issues), include the fact that funding for filling gaps in ESN coverage is unclear coupled with the Home Office’s belief that the costs for these is difficult to assess until the coverage work is complete, and the Home Office having yet to agree funding for work on coverage in the London Underground after 2020 with Transport for London (TfL).

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One of the other significant elements of the report is the light it sheds on the change in approach to project delivery that has occurred since KBR was initially appointed as delivery partner back in August 2015, to provide programme management and oversee testing across the full ESN service.

The NAO report notes that “By mid-2018, the Home Office was increasingly using its own and sub-contracted staff for programme management and integration work. During the reset, the Home Office decided to take on contractual responsibility for integration and formalised this in heads of terms with Motorola and EE in September 2018. In these agreements it stated that it would act as the delivery integrator for ESN, take ownership of the integrated programme delivery plan and work with suppliers to produce an integrated ESN product.”

Initially KBR’s involvement in the programme was expected to cost an estimated £49.7 million, but in March 2019 the Home Office had spent £73 million. It is moving staff contracted through KBR to a framework for contingent labour.

The Home Office is planning to procure a new supplier for “programme advisory and delivery services” but does not expect to do so until mid 2019. It is expected that this will provide the capability need to integrate and test ESN (changes made since 2015 have left the Home Office with the responsibility for this work).

The NAO explains that prior to the reset, the Home Office had hoped to make Motorola Solutions responsible for a number of technical integration aspects, including ensuring that user control rooms could connect to ESN along with seamless integration between Motorola’s and EE’s networks. “However, the 2017 independent review found that ambiguities in the contracts and a lack of attention to detail in procurement had allowed Motorola to disclaim such responsibility, and therefore the Home Office took on this role.”

Discussing the period before the recent project reset, the NAO report states that: “The original plans from Motorola and EE had made incompatible assumptions about how Motorola would implement PTT, which the Home Office did not identify before contracts were signed in 2015. As Motorola and EE shared designs, it became clear that each had based their designs on different versions of international standards. The Home Office’s independent reviewer found that ‘…it took many months for the programme to properly comprehend the impact of the design mismatch’.”

On the network side, 292 sites need to be commissioned by the Home Office as part of the Extended Area Services (EAS) sub-project, but as of March 2019, only two had gone live. An additional 85 sites will be needed to be provided to provide the air-to-ground network network, and while the Home Office seeks to launch this by June 2021, the NAO report says that work on this has not yet started. While ESN Assure (a on-device application that tests ESN coverage and signal strength) was launched in November last year, only 100 out of 1,000 handsets are being used because the necessary security accreditation was not in place.

One point of interest, given the lack of a traditional public safety network operator for ESN, is the NAO’s statement that the Home Office commissioned consultants in September 2018 to look into whether an external organisation should manage ESN once it is up and running. They recommended that setting up a new government owned organisation (GovCo) once ESN is ready is the best approach as it would offer the best mix of operational effectiveness and value for money. However, according to the NAO report, the Home Office has yet to decide whether to pursue this approach.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “…ESN is on track to deliver an ambitious, world-leading, digital communications network for the emergency services by 2022, resulting in savings of £200 million a year.

“It is already allowing people to make 999 calls from areas where it was previously impossible, with almost 400 new masts built so far in some of the most remote areas of Britain.

“When fully implemented, its mobile technology and infrastructure will transform the emergency response of police officers, fire fighters and ambulance crews. This will result in faster and better treatment for victims, including by allowing first responders to transmit footage of crime and accident scenes back to specialists in hospitals and police stations.”

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