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A number of red flags that seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight were clearly missed during the planning process for the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), Home Office officials have told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) during its latest evidence-gathering session into the delayed and foundering project to transform how the UK’s blue light services communicate.
The PAC’s latest wide-ranging session exploring the delayed and foundering Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) – which is supposed to transform how the UK’s blue light services communicate – exposed a litany of errors and missed opportunities to salvage the ESN over the past few years.
These include miscommunication between suppliers EE and Motorola on critical elements of the technology due to the nature of how the contracts work; internal reports that could have flagged issues earlier, which were commissioned within ESMCP, but not even read by the Home Office; and millions of pounds apparently wasted on propping up a delivery contract with integrator Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), described by Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam as “not a very happy experience”.
Rutnam said that on arriving at the Home Office in 2017 – where he replaced Mark Sedwill, now cabinet secretary – he had three things at the top of his mind.
First, that an additional nine months had just been added to the ESN timeline; second, that the programme was clearly “under strain”; and third, that NAO head Amyas Morse had mentioned to him beforehand that ESMCP was a programme to which he should pay particular attention.
“There was a plan,” said Rutnam, “but the question was, how robust was the plan?”
Responding to questions from MP Lee Rowley over what Rutnam found and how he set about fixing it, Rutnam said he clearly identified a need for tighter governance, and he quickly appointed (former Rolls Royce CIO) Simon Ricketts to lead an internal review into the ESMCP that he hoped would expose governance issues.
“I also thought…that we needed to strengthen the leadership within the department. We were at that point in the process seeking to bring on board a new chief digital, data and technology officer (CDDTO), which is now Joanna [Davinson], and I took the view that this programme should report to our chief digital officer,” he said.
Rowley went on to ask whether or not there was an integrated plan in place, to which Rutnam responded that Ricketts’s report showed there was not. Rowley went on to ask whether or not there was sufficient programme assurance, or sufficient senior oversight, to which Rutnam responded “no”.
Rutnam said that with hindsight, it was clear that the timescales set down for the ESN roll-out were too optimistic, and added that he hoped the Home Office would learn a number of lessons from the experience fracas.
“You [PAC chair Meg Hillier] have already identified the most important, which is around the realism of programme planning at the outset,” he said.
“I would link to that the need to create, in the way a programme operates and the environment that surrounds it, enough challenge, and open-mindedness to challenge,” he added.
Building capabilities and confidence
With the ESMCP reset to a new timescale and a phased roll-out already beginning, the PAC also heard how the Home Office is moving forward with the programme.
“The level of technical risk in the solution is declining. That is very welcome,” said Rutnam. “We have made a series of other important changes, which are positive, but this remains a challenging and difficult programme.
“User confidence is the next big challenge we need to address. The other one is systems integration. Because of the contractual structure that exists, we are the systems integrator. That is not naturally the role of a government department, but we have that role in this case and we need to build our capability in that respect.”
Rutnam explained some changes had been made in the ESMCP team to increase the Home Office’s skills in that area, and a procurement is underway to find a new delivery partner with systems integration capabilities.
In terms of establishing greater confidence in ESN among the emergency services, Home Office CDDTO Joanna Davinson said that with a firmer plan for delivering the technical solution in place, the Home Office was able to have more relevant discussions with users about how ESN will work in the real world.
“We already have very regular meetings across the whole of the emergency services organisations, at the regional level and at local level,” said Davinson.
“We have a programme of demonstrating the capabilities as they emerge. Community members are invited to events where they can see the products as they are delivered. We have a programme of going out and proactively looking at deployment issues with each of the individual customers out there.
“That will come together into an overall plan that we will then consult on very widely with the community over the rest of this year,” she said.
Read more about emergency services IT
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- New disclosures from those responsible for the troubled Emergency Services Network project have revealed that, contrary to previous denials, the Home Office came close to pulling the plug in 2018.