NAO voices concern over continued ESN delays

The National Audit Office (NAO) has stated that the UK government’s Emergency Services Network programme will need to improve its “management information”, in the light of continued delays to the project.

The findings were published earlier this week in the NAO’s third report into the ESN programme. Summarising them in a statement, a spokesperson for the organisation said: “Plans for a new communication network for emergency services have fallen further behind schedule, with the Home Office spending almost £2 billion on it since the programme began in 2015.”

The spokesperson continued: “In 2019, the NAO assessed the programme as poor value for money. A reset, started in 2018, has not worked.

“Eight years after proposals for a new system to replace the outdated Airwave platform were unveiled… the Home Office does not currently know when ESN will be ready or how much it will cost.“

The background for the report in question - and to the current delay - is the recent investigation by the Competition & Markets Authority into the provision by Motorola Solutions of the UK’s legacy, TETRA-based, public safety communications system, Airwave. The provisional findings of this investigation, which were published towards the end of last year, subsequently prompted Motorola to exit the ESN project, for which it was also a key contractor.

Discussing the situation, the NAO statement continued: “In 2021 the Home Office wrote to the Competition & Markets Authority. The Home Office considered that Motorola’s Airwave profits were excessive and had concerns about its incentives and ability to complete ESN within the time available.

“The CMA has provisionally estimated that, without a price control, Motorola could make super-normal profits of £1.1 billion between 2020 and 2026 from Airwave.

“Motorola told the Home Office that it may not continue as a supplier when its contract ended in 2024. This was to remove the risk that the CMA would force it to sell Airwave.

“In December 2022, the Home Office agreed to end the contract with Motorola early and pay it £45 million; this included £27 million to settle disputes. Motorola has been paid more than £300 million since 2015.”

In light of the above, the Home Office is currently in the process of awarding a new contract in order to replace Motorola. The company was responsible for the ‘user services’ area of the project, otherwise known as Lot 2.

As well as the situation around the Lot 2 contract, the NAO report also addresses potential knock-on effects in relation to other areas of the ESN programme. This includes pausing the work of other suppliers.

More positively, the document also mentions “increased confidence” in the programme’s leadership on the part of the Home Office, with the latter having “improved user relationships, which is critical to ESN being accepted.”

According to the NAO, ESMCP is in the process of developing a new ESN business case for approval next year, setting out a revised timetable and costing, alongside a “strategic case for continuing the programme.” The timetable for ESN completion has been pushed back to 2026 at the earliest.

Discussing the findings, head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said: “After eight years and almost £2 billion, it is extremely worrying that the Home Office does not now know when the Emergency Services Network will be ready or what it will cost.

“[The] Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing. It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The NAO report was published the day after ESN programme director John Black delivered his keynote project update at BAPCO 2023, which took place earlier this week in Coventry. Addressing the delay from the point of view of the programme, he said that the plan going forward was to essentially retain the same structure while finding a replacement for the supplier of Lot 2.

Discussing the rationale behind this approach, he said: “We're confident that, whatever the reason we terminated the relationship with Motorola, it wasn't because it technically didn't work. We [want] to build on the investment we've made to date, and maintain momentum as much as possible.”

He continued: “[The programme is] like a jigsaw of the 60 contracts, and we've just taken out one of the major pieces in the middle. What are we going to do? We're going to try and replace it.

“We're not going to throw the whole jigsaw back into the box and try and do it a different way. We're not going to lose all the investment [so far], so our decision was to maintain momentum.”

Discussing timescale going forward, Black said that he didn’t anticipate a new Lot 2 contract being signed until next year.

To continue the conversation join us at Critical Communications Network - the new online community for the sector