National Audit Office: ESN roll-out “remains inherently high risk”
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The National Audit Office (NAO) has released a report “Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network”, which assesses the risks associated with the delivery of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) by the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) and its commercial partners. The Home Office has accepted the report’s key recommendations.

“The need to save money and get out of a difficult commercial relationship has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (pictured right). “The programme remains inherently high risk and while steps have been taken to manage these risks we are concerned that these are under-rated in the Home Office and elsewhere. The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services.”

International comparison work, commissioned by the NAO, has concluded that the proposed ESN solution is the most advanced in the world, with only one other country – South Korea – seeking to deploy a similar solution. The NAO has said that there are significant technical challenges that the programme needs to overcome including working with EE to increase the coverage and resilience of its 4G network so that it at least matches Airwave and developing handheld and vehicle mounted devices as no devices currently exist that would work on ESN.

The report states that: “We consider that, despite the programme’s mitigations, ESN remains an inherently high-risk programme that will require the highest levels of senior oversight throughout its lifetime”

The NAO estimates that the cost of a 12-month delay to ESN could be up to £475 million. It notes that the programme is five months behind the schedule agreed a year ago and ESMCP has responded by “squeezing the time available rather than extending the overall timeframe”.

The NAO says that ESN is the right direction strategically and its benefits should be substantial, noting that once ESN is up and running at a cost of £1.2 billion, it will cost an estimated £500/device less per year than Airwave and will have better data capabilities, allowing the emergency services to operate more effectively.

It says that the programme’s management of key risks needs to improve if it is to deliver ESN successfully and these include:

  • The programme’s approach to technical assurance and testing
  • User engagement
  • More clarity on the contingency arrangements for extending Airwave

The report notes that emergency services will not have their own contractual arrangements for the full scope of ESN, instead having a call-off arrangement with EE, “but the terms of this are more limited than the contract they currently have with Airwave. For example, their contract with EE will give them very little direct recourse for poor service.”

It goes on to say that: “We consider that the commercial arrangements under ESN therefore create a risk that the emergency services feel they do not have sufficient control over the service they receive and may continue to make use of supplementary services, leading to a reduction in the benefits of ESN.”

Emergency services personnel told the NAO that the transition period from Airwave to ESN gives them limited opportunity to plan or learn lessons from each other.

The NAO states that defining the ESMCP’s contingency of allowing the emergency services to stay on Airwave until ESN is as least as good as Airwave, is complex and leaves room for disagreement.

The report’s key recommendations for the programme are:

  • It should improve the independence of the technical assurance arrangements it has in place.
  • It needs to urgently develop a detailed contingency plan
  • It needs to improve communications with the emergency services and other users of Airwave
  • It needs to work with the Home Office, other sponsors and users to develop the service management arrangements for when ESN is fully operational.

The report also recommends thatThe Home Office and other sponsors should work together to protect the programme from unnecessary staff turnover and that when designing and approving commercial arrangements, departments and the Cabinet Office should carefully consider what will maximise the chances of successful delivery

The Home Office asked requested that the NAO include the following text at the end of the report:

“…They [the Home Office] have adopted their approach to equip the emergency services with the modern data communications capabilities they need and so welcomes the report’s key finding that ESN is the right direction strategically. The Department has also accepted the key recommendations.

“However, the Home Office does not agree with the NAO’s judgement about the Department’s acknowledgement of the programme’s risk, on incentives on users to transition, or the scale of benefits in the business case, considering that the programme and commercial approach are designed to maximise value for money and comply with procurement law.”

A Home Office spokesperson said:

“We are developing the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) because it will help keep people safe, providing the dedicated teams who work so hard to protect the public and save lives with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world.

“It will ensure that police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, and will be a more capable and more flexible communications network than the existing Airwave system. As the National Audit Office’s report has itself concluded, ESN is the right direction strategically for maximising these benefits.

“The timescale for ESN is deliberately ambitious because we want to maximise the benefits it will bring to the public and we have comprehensive risk management tools in place as well as the best possible expertise to design, build, test and roll out the new network.”

The full NAO report can be viewed here

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