Public Accounts Committee raises more concerns over ESN
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The work by the Home Office to deliver the Emergency Services Network (ESN) has come under fire from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in its latest report on the high profile and much-delayed project

Its latest report on ESN states that despite the reset of the programme in 2018, “We are not yet convinced that it [the Home Office] has done enough to turn the programme around. The plan for delivering ESN is still not sufficiently robust and the department does not yet have the skills to make it work. The programme faces substantial levels of technical and commercial risk, and failures to date have undermined the confidence of users that the programme will deliver a system that is fit for purpose and meets their needs. On current evidence it seems inevitable that there will be further delays and cost increases.”

“The department has put itself in a position where the status quo is costly and leaves little option but to progress with ESN. One company, Motorola [Solutions], is involved in both the new and the old contract leading to perverse incentives and putting the department in a weak negotiating position. We will continue to be concerned about the progress of this programme until the department has a clear plan for delivery and can demonstrate that it has the skills and capacity to meet the substantial challenges ahead.”

The PAC has therefore recommended that the Home Office should write to it by October, “setting out how it will manage the risks presented by Motorola’s position and the possible need to extend Airwave until it can be replaced by ESN.”

Motorola Solutions provided Land Mobile with the following statement: “We welcome the findings of the PAC report and remain committed to working with the Home Office to deliver this project, and putting the latest technology in the hands of those charged with the public’s safety. We have worked closely with the Home Office to support its new phased roll-out approach of ESN.”

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The report goes onto say that the Home Office “will not force users to accept ESN until they all agree it is ‘as good’ as Airwave, but it has not defined what this means with sufficient clarity. It has also yet to confirm what happens if some users require expensive changes before they will accept ESN”.

The PAC also says that it is “not convinced that the department has the plans or the skills needed to integrate the different elements of ESN into a coherent service,” noting that since the initial delivery partner, KBR, had its role downgraded by the Home Office, the latter has been responsible for “making all the different elements of ESN work seamlessly together… but it does not yet have sufficient skills to undertake this role.

“Its plans for testing ESN are not well developed and the its track record of coordinating this programme so far is poor. It failed to realise the implications of EE and Motorola [Solutions] making plans based on different versions of telecommunications standards. It similarly failed to ensure suppliers worked together in the same location at the start of the programme, which could have improved collaboration. The department intends to contract a new delivery partner, but this has not yet happened.”

The full report can be downloaded here and largely draws from oral evidence. It draws substantially on oral testimony given by the Home Office on 22 May that can be viewed here.

Speaking in response to the PAC report, a Home Office spokesperson said: "The Emergency Services Network will provide police, fire services and ambulance crews with an innovative mobile-based communications system that can transform their emergency response and result in savings of £200 million a year.

"This ambitious project has not been without its challenges, but following our thorough review and decision to roll ESN out in stages, our approach has gone to plan, with the network already live and devices and software being tested. We will continue to monitor progress to ensure the successful delivery of this programme."

The Home Office has recently provided details of some of its recent progress, using social media channels. Interworking between ESN and Airwave has been demonstrated by Motorola Solutions, which will allow users and control rooms who still operate on Airwave to communicate with users who have moved over to ESN. This functionality will initially be made available to the UK’s emergency services as part of ESN Direct 2. This is the second of three versions of the prototype software package that, when mature, will become ESN Prime, the fully functional solution that is needed for national transition to ESN. Further capabilities will then be built into the Direct 3 release.

As part of its contract to supply smartphones and related accessories for ESN, Samsung has been working with Sonic Communications to provide a Bluetooth remote speaker microphone (RSM). The Home Office reported in a social media post on 24 June that the first of these had arrived in that week and that a wired version will arrive at a later date.

The RSM was later tested at the Glastonbury Music Festival. Members of the EE ESN customer engagement and south west ESN teams worked with the three local emergency services to understand their operational priorities and plans, and also tested coverage in and around the 900-acre site.

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