Emergency Services Network: further progress review Contents

1The 2018 ‘reset’ of the ESN programme

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Home Office (the Department) about progress in delivering the Emergency Services Network (ESN).1

The ESN programme

2.The ESN programme is Department’s chosen replacement for the Airwave digital radio system, currently used by 107 emergency services and 363 other organisations, in England, Scotland and Wales for communicating in the field.2 The Department intends that ESN will:

The Department did not define this in detail, but it expected ESN to replace all the functionality of Airwave including its network coverage and reliability, devices and upgraded control rooms.

Emergency services require mobile data for their life-saving work. While the existing Airwave system provides only limited mobile data capabilities, ESN is intended to provide 4G, for example the fire service could use ESN to transmit live video of incidents to firefighters on the way to an incident.

The Airwave network was fully dedicated to its users, but ESN will see the emergency services share an existing commercial mobile network, which is expected to be far cheaper. ESN is jointly funded by the Home Office, the Department for Health & Social Care, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and some costs are paid for by users.3

3.The Department let the main contracts for building and running ESN in 2015 to: EE Ltd (EE), to provide priority access to its existing 4G mobile network and increase its coverage; and Motorola Solutions UK Ltd (Motorola), to provide the software and systems that ensure ESN meets the needs of the emergency services. The Department also appointed KBR Ltd (KBR) to be the delivery partner for ESN and other suppliers were, or will be, contracted to provide other elements of ESN including devices and upgraded control rooms.4

The new approach to delivering ESN

4.When the Department awarded contracts for ESN in 2015, its timetable assumed that emergency services would start transitioning away from Airwave and onto ESN in September 2017, allowing Airwave to be shutdown in December 2019. In February 2017, the Department reported that the completion of ESN had been delayed by 9 months, and in September 2018 it announced it had ‘reset’ the programme. The reset involved extending the timetable, adopting an incremental delivery approach, with ESN delivered in phases rather than all at once, replacing a key piece of technology and renegotiating the main contracts with EE and Motorola. The point at which ESN is planned to replace Airwave was delayed by three years to December 2022, and the total cost of ESN has increased to £9.3 billion, an increase of £3.1 billion.5

5.The Department admitted that its original timetable for ensuring ESN provides network coverage everywhere it is needed was too optimistic.6 The Department is responsible for building 292 new mobile phone sites in rural areas and connecting them to EE’s network. But only 2 out of 292 have been finished and it could not say when the rest would be going live.7 The Department told us that it had anticipated that acquiring the land for these sites and gaining planning permission would be difficult, but accepted that getting the agreement of land owners had been more difficult than it had expected.8 EE has also been slower than expected in rolling out the physical infrastructure needed to support ESN, including coverage for regional metros, which is now expected to be completed in 2020 rather than September 2017 as originally planned. The Department told us that EE had been over-optimistic about the time needed to build coverage into underground railways, such as those in Glasgow and Tyne and Wear, but that in other areas EE would have been able to deliver quickly if it had needed to, but delays elsewhere in the programme meant that it had deliberately spread out its investment over a longer period.9

6.We asked the Department how it could now be confident that ESN would deliver on time, particularly given the amount of work that is still left to do to ensure that the new technology is available.10 The Department told us it had a “pretty high” degree of confidence of launching the first substantive ESN prototype product later this year, but recognised that there was a remaining challenge to roll-out the new technology and ensure people use it. But key technology for ESN is not yet proven in real-world conditions. The National Audit Office found that Samsung had produced a prototype handset, and EE had successfully tested its core network’s ability to prioritise emergency services’ use of ESN, but this has not yet been fully tested for the ESN system as a whole or in demanding scenarios such as major public events or disasters. Technology for providing direct communication between devices without the need for a network signal is also not yet provided by any device on the market.11 The Department told us it was hoping to award contracts for devices for aircraft soon.12 But work on the network to provide a signal for those devices has not yet started and the Department told us that emergency services would not have access to this until 2020–21.13

7.When the current Accounting Officer joined the Department in April 2017, he found that the programme’s timetable needed revising again despite the Department having recently announced 9 month delay.14 In July 2017 he commissioned an independent review that reported in October 2017 and found the programme did not have a complete integrated programme plan.15 The Department has now approved a new plan, but the National Audit Office found that the plan is not yet robust or sufficiently detailed to demonstrate that the Department understands the challenges faced by the programme. including how emergency services will implement ESN, or how the components of ESN will be integrated successfully. For example the Department’s plan assumes ESN will be rolled out in some areas before key parts of the system, such as upgraded control rooms, are expected to be ready.16 The Department told us that it would have an integrated deployment plan in place by August 2019.17 It was unable to confirm that December 2022 was a realistic target for turning off Airwave, and described it as a “not before date” rather than a firm deadline.18

Warning signs about the delivery of the programme

8.The Department admitted that its programmes, and the people running them “tend to optimism”, which can help get them through challenges but can also narrow the perspectives of those responsible for programme.19 We asked the Department the extent to which concerns about the programme were obvious and raised and discussed. The Department told us that while these concerns were obvious and were raised at a senior level, it could not confirm how widely they were discussed across the organisation.20 In 2016, the programme team commissioned a report into the problems facing ESN. But this was not shared with the programme’s Senior Responsible Owner, who told us he only learned of it when it was referenced in the independent review commissioned the following year. The Department was not able to explain why this had happened. The 2016 report had identified some of the problems in the programme, including a lack of clarity around integration. We asked, had the report been more widely discussed, whether the Department could have avoided problems with the programme. It told us that, had those now responsible been aware of the report, it was likely that they would have initiated the independent review of the programme at an earlier stage.21

9.We asked the Department’s Accounting Officer what his view of ESN was when he took up his post in April 2017. He told us that it had quickly become apparent that the programme was under strain and he had been concerned that there was a risk additional time would be needed, beyond the 9 month delay that had already been reported.22 As well as commissioning an independent review in July 2017, he strengthened the leadership and governance of ESN so that the programme now reports to the Chief Digital, Data and Technology Officer.23 The independent review identified multiple issues with the programme, including the failure of the delivery partner contract with KBR, EE and Motorola assuming different versions of telecommunication standards, a disagreement on the responsibilities for systems integration and technical design, challenges locking down the detailed requirements for software, and late delivery of the projects that the Department controlled itself.24

10.We were concerned that it took so long to surface the problems with the delivery of ESN and realise that the timetable was over optimistic. We and the NAO had been warning that ESN was high risk since 2016.25 In September 2016, the NAO warned that the Department appeared to be under-rating the seriousness of the risks to delivering ESN.26 In our report in January 2017, we concluded that the programme was unlikely to meet its ambitious timetable and recommended that the Department reassess its timetable and milestones to ensure that all parties involved in delivering the programme agreed they were deliverable.27 We reiterated these concerns and our disappointment that the Department’s risk management and assurance arrangements had not picked these problems up earlier in our second report on ESN in April 2017 and recommended the Department review the risks to the programme as we thought it was too ambitious.28

11.The Department now admits that it had believed the suppliers when they said they were “confident” that they would be able to deliver ESN on time, and that the Department itself had under-estimated the difficulty in obtaining planning permission for the new sites. We were concerned that the Department had not anticipated these issues given that they were not a surprise to Committee Members based on experience within their constituencies.29 We also asked why, given the scale, complexity and level of risk of ESN, the Department had not adopted an incremental approach to rolling out the new technology from the start. The Department recognised that it had become overly focused on delivering everything at once, and that this was not the way to deliver such a complex programme.30 The Department admitted its original timetable was too optimistic, but some optimism remains, for example the programme contingency is only enough to cover a small further delay.31

Confidence of emergency services in the new approach

12.Our previous examinations of major programmes within the Home Office have found that failing to understand or engage with the end users can pose serious risks. Our predecessor Committee’s report on the e-borders programme found that, while stakeholder engagement was a critical to the success of the programme, throughout the Department had underestimated the importance of securing their co-operation. The Department did not fully recognise the diversity of the industry users, and feedback from users had not been acted on. We recommended that the Department should ensure all stakeholders were consulted as programmes develop and that the issues they raise were considered carefully and responded to effectively.32 In our report on modernising the Disclosure and Barring Service we found that the Department launched the updated service without a sound idea of demand or whether customers would use it, and was only just starting to look at why it was not popular. It had launched the service without a pilot or properly engaging with users, which it subsequently admitted was a mistake as demand had been much lower than was predicted. We recommended that before making changes to services in future, the Department should undertake a proper and robust forecast of user needs and demand.33

13.We were concerned that the delays to ESN had reduced users’ confidence in the programme and asked the Department how it was addressing this.34 The Department told us that the new incremental approach to delivering ESN will give greater opportunity for emergency services to test ESN and gain confidence that it will meet their needs. But it recognised that, given the risks of using a new system in life or death situations, most may prefer to wait until later versions of ESN are available, rather than try out the earlier products.35 The first test will come with the launch of the ‘ESN Direct 1’ product later in 2019, which is expected to be used by 120 people in Immigration Enforcement.36 The Department told us that it hoped to expand the numbers using Direct 1 to around 1,000 people by November 2019, but recognised that this was still a small fraction of the 300,000 expected to eventually use ESN.37

14.The Department did not start to undertake exercises with three police forces to understand their needs in rolling out ESN until July 2018. The Department told us that while it had been talking to users, delays in producing real products meant it had not yet been able to discuss how ESN fitted into the real-world environment, and that it was only now beginning to work through the details of how ESN would be rolled out.38 As a result of this some emergency services do not yet have confidence in the programme. We heard from the Police and Crime Commissioner of Bedfordshire, who told us that they had “seen nothing to give [us] assurance that [ESN] will be delivered by the end of 2022, as currently proposed”.39

15.The Department continued to assert that it will not force emergency services to adopt ESN, and that ESN will be as good as Airwave in all respects.40 We asked how this will be judged in the absence of an agreed, and locked down statement of what the ESN service will look like or how it will be used in practice.41 The Department told us that it knows the end point for the programme and had agreed the technical requirements that the programme must meet.42 But it admitted that the operating model—the way ESN will be used in practice—had not yet been agreed. We were concerned that this created a risk that ESN might not be accepted by the emergency services despite meeting the technical requirements.43

16.We heard from representatives of fire and police services, who told us that they were working on detailed acceptance criteria. The National Police ESN Coordinator told us that they had discussed and were agreeing an extensive set of exit criteria that need to be met before Airwave can be switched off. The National Fire Chiefs Council similarly told us that they had produced a comprehensive set of acceptance criteria which must be met in full for the fire service to consider ESN as fit for purpose.44 We asked what would happen if the Department considered ESN to be fully delivered but emergency services were not content to transition. The Department told us it will not leave users without communication, but could only say that there would be further discussions if emergency services were not happy.45 The Department was unable to explain in detail what would happen if some services were not convinced, or where the tipping point would be at which ESN is accepted by enough services to put pressure on others to accept it.46

1 C&AG’s Report, Progress delivering the Emergency Services Network, Session 2017–19, HC 2140, 10 May 2019

2 C&AG’s Report, para 1

3 C&AG’s Report, paras 1–2, 1.5

4 C&AGs Report, paras 3–4

5 C&AG’s Report, paras 7, 8, 10, 1.10, Figure 4

7 Qq 131–132

8 Qq 127–129

9 Qq 125–6, 133–135

10 Qq 73–74

11 Q 74; C&AG’s Report, para 12

12 Q 136

13 Qq 74, 137; C&AG’s Report, para 12

14 Q 13

15 Q 23

16 Q 96; C&AG’s Report, para 16

17 Qq 113, 139

18 Qq 60,73

19 Q 45

20 Q 17

21 Qq 67–71

22 Qq 13–16

23 Qq 18- 22

24 Q 21; C&AG’s Report, para 6

25 Qq 40–44

26 Comptroller & Auditor General, Upgrading Emergency Services Communications: the Emergency Services Network, Session 2016–17, HC 627, 15 September 2016

27 Committee of Public Accounts, Upgrading emergency service communications, 35th Report of Session 2016–17, HC 770, 25 January 2017

28 Committee of Public Accounts, Upgrading emergency service communications – recall, 52nd report of Session 2016–17, HC 997, 21 April 2017

29 Qq 55, 127–129, 149

30 Qq 147–148

31 Q 42; C&AG’s Report, para 10

32 Committee of Public Accounts, 27th report of Session 2015–16, e-Borders and successor programmes, HC 643, 4 March 2016, para 5

33 Committee of Public Accounts, Modernising the Disclosure and Barring Service, 42nd Report of Session 2017–19 , HC 695, 25 May 2018, para 5

34 Qq 28, 107

35 Qq 31,32, 148

36 Qq 28–32

37 Q 32; C&AG’s Report Figure 11

38 Qq 96, 101–103

39 Q 115; Written Evidence ESR0003, Bedfordshire Police, 5 June 2019

40 C&AG’s Report, para 15

41 Qq 150–167

42 Qq 154–160

43 Qq 160–169

44 Q 123; Written Evidence: ESR0001, National Police ESN Coordinator, 22 May 2019; ESR0002 National Fire Chiefs Council, 22 May 2019

45 Qq 120–122

46 Qq 173–177

Published: 17 July 2019