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UK National Audit Office slams mistakes as ESN bill soars to £2bn

Financial watchdog bites UK government in report investigating £2bn Emergency Services Network project, which has been plagued by delays, budget overruns and rows over value for money

A damning report from the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the Home Office for mistakes made in the Emergency Services Network (ESN) project that has seen some £2bn spent since 2015, with the blue-light services still a long way from having a functioning network to replace their former infrastructure.

The report comes just weeks after the government announced it was scrapping the latest, and expected-to-be-last, stage of the service agreement it still has with Motorola to supply technology and services for the now infamous project.

In 2015, the UK Home Office contracted suppliers to provide a new ESN to replace the existing and well-liked Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network used by all 108 police, fire and ambulance services (users) across England, Scotland and Wales to communicate between the field and control rooms. As part of its Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), the Home Office intended ESN to fully replace Airwave, cost less and provide users with access to what it described as “modern” mobile data.

In 2015, the Home Office contracted EE Ltd to provide priority access to its mobile network and increase network coverage. It also contracted Motorola Solutions UK for software and systems including critical features not normally found on a mobile network, such as a first-of-a-kind “push-to-talk” functionality. Different suppliers were contracted for other parts of the programme, such as upgrading users’ systems and ensuring that ESN covers remote areas.

The ESN was designed to offer a secure private mobile radio communications platform for all organisations involved in public safety to be used by the country’s first responders. In addition to winning one of the key contracts for the delivery of ESN in 2015, Motorola acquired Airwave Solutions, the owner and operator of the Airwave network, in 2016. According to figures released by the UK government in January 2023, the total value of the contract for the project as a whole was £409.5m.

Yet almost from this moment, questions were being raised regarding the cost of the project and implementation timescales.

In 2016, in its first report on ESMCP, the NAO assessed the programme as high risk because of the commercial approach; the ambitious technology and timetable; and uncertainty about users accepting ESN. It found that Motorola’s purchase of Airwave in February had created commercial risks given the supplier’s role in ESN. It also found the Home Office was trying to adopt an approach not used at a national scale in other countries which carried significant implementation risk.

When it reported a second time, in 2019, the NAO found that after a reset in 2018 the programme remained high-risk. It reiterated that the Home Office should carefully manage the risk associated with Motorola’s dual roles.

Read more about the ESN

In October 2019, the Home Office agreed to implement all of the recommendations made by the UK Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in its July 2019 report on the ESMCP deployment, and also planned for a total failure of the troubled programme by building a “Plan B” into its revised business case “in the event that ESN proves undeliverable or no longer provides value for money”.

PAC chair Meg Hiller said the delays and cost overruns to the ESN project were creating a “crisis of confidence” because none of the emergency services that are supposed to benefit from the upgraded ESN 4G mobile network had any trust in the new system being delivered.

As it published its latest report, which describes the Home Office’s progress since 2019 and its view of the programme’s risks and issues, the NAO emphasised that it was not evaluating performance to date, nor was it trying to seek to apportion responsibility for challenges experienced. In addition, because of the uncertainty facing the programme, it did not assess the value for money of continuing the programme nor provide an exhaustive list of risks.

However, the NAO notes that even though the Home Office forecasts that it has spent some £2bn on ESN since 2015, it is a long way from having a functioning network to replace Airwave.

It flatly describes the reset, introduced to address technology and commercial issues, as fundamentally not working. Recognition of this came in 2021, when the Home Office wrote to the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) expressing concerns over Airwave’s excessive profits and Motorola’s incentives to complete ESN.

Expressed concerns

In July 2021, the NAO and PAC expressed concerns to the CMA about the role of Motorola in the ESN, leading to Motorola indicating it may leave.

In December 2022, just over two weeks after the CMA investigation into the role of the Airwave infrastructure in the ESN concluded the tech firm appears to be charging prices well above competitive levels, Motorola made what it called a “business decision” to begin an early exit from its ESN contract.

While noting this move addressed recognised issues, the NAO observed that fundamentally the early exit meant the Home Office has paid Motorola for software and systems it will not use, and that Motorola has written off some ESN investment.

Furthermore, the NAO warned that although the Home Office must find a new supplier to continue the programme – this will not happen before April 2024 – replacing Motorola does not guarantee that the programme will succeed even if doing so may have been necessary.

Offering some solace to the Home Office, the NAO recognised that the department had taken some tough decisions affecting the programme’s risks and uncertainties with the aim of putting it onto a stable footing. It said it now has more confidence in the programme leadership, which has improved the programme’s relationship with users that is critical to ESN being accepted. However, the NAO added that the Home Office cannot yet be certain of the impact of its actions and ongoing uncertainty risks putting this new-found confidence at risk.

In a call to action, the NAO stated there was a necessity for the Home Office to make clear to users the value of ESN, particularly as Airwave meets its expectations and many have its own data solutions. It said the Home Office also needs to continue revising timetable and cost estimates, avoiding a repeat of past mistakes such as setting unrealistic time frames; complete other aspects of ESN; and bring everything together into a working service.

The bottom line was that because Airwave will eventually need to be replaced, the Home Office must make sure it has taken the time it needs to fix the problems and not waste money, as previously reported by the NAO, or reset the programme again.

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