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The December 2019 delivery date for the government’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) looks likely to be unachievable, according to a newly released Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on the controversial blue light mobile communications project.
In the report, the PAC, which is chaired by Labour MP Meg Hillier, concluded that the enhanced 4G mobile network that EE is supplying to replace the current Airwave-owned terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network may “require more testing and assurance work than the current … delivery date seems to allow for”.
The PAC warned that based on its examination of the ESN, which will be used by 105 police, fire and ambulance services, and numerous other agencies, the Home Office had failed to budget for an extended transition period, nor had it put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage the risk.
At an inquiry into the ESN held in November 2016 – at which Home Office representatives maintained they had full confidence in the deliverability of the project – PAC members expressed the concern that the risks associated with the ESN threatened a repeat of other notable government IT failures, such as e-Borders, FireControl and the NHS National Programme for IT.
“The stakes in this programme are extremely high,” said Meg Hillier. “It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works.
“Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere – high-risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies. These must be addressed urgently.”
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Hillier said it was encouraging that the head of the ESN programme had been in the role since 2011, lending an air of stability absent from many other government projects. She admitted she was “disappointed” that more detailed contingency plans had not been budgeted for or drawn up in the event that implementation overran.
“It is critical for public safety and achieving value for money that the government has a firm grasp of the implications of delays in its timetable and a costed plan to tackle them. We will expect it to demonstrate real progress in this area when it reports back to us later this year,” said Hillier.
Areas of concern
The PAC report also highlighted a number of areas of concern that may cause the ESN’s delivery date to slip further, including the expansion of coverage onto the London Underground and other sub-surface networks, such as the Glasgow Subway.
It also called on the Home Office to urgently reassess its timetables and costs, and to work more closely with the emergency services to update and agree deliverable transition plans.
Finally, the PAC expressed concern at the means by which the two main contracts were let, after a series of setbacks saw multiple bidders withdraw from the procurement process. This meant the award of the contracts was merely a formality.
Home Office spokesperson
The PAC said the Home Office had not managed to “maintain competitive pressure” and concluded that the incumbent suppliers would be in a very strong position when the ESN contracts are recompeted in the future.
In response, the Home Office claimed it had in place “robust contingency plans”, and had already extended the existing Airwave contracts to the end of December 2019, with arrangements for extending that into 2020 if needed.
It pointed out that the emergency services would be the ones to decide, after stringent testing, whether ESN met their needs, adding that it had always been clear the network transition process would not be ready to be tested until early 2018, with the first users expected to go live by midsummer.
“The ESN will give the dedicated professionals who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives the most advanced communications system of its kind,” said a Home Office spokesperson.
“Police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews will be able to do their work more effectively with ESN, and the new system will deliver significant savings for the taxpayer.
“The timescales are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until the transition to ESN is completed,” the spokesperson added.