Skip to content

Search the site

Eight years in, £2 billion spent, and nothing to show bar a big fat interoperability hole

Astonishingly the Home Office, already under pressure over interoperability challenges “does not know how many vendors provide" control room systems across 108 service stations...

The British government has spent upwards of £2 billion ($2.6 billion) to replace a legacy emergency services network (ESN) but has not delivered “anything substantial” according to a damning new report from MPs – who warned that the government does not have capacity or contractual chops to ensure interoperability across “an unknown number of vendors.”

Currently, all 108 police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales connect using the “Airwave” system, run by Motorola – which makes some $486.2 million per year from the network and has come under sustained pressure from policy makers over that contract. (It is appealing a decision to impose price controls over alleged "excessive profits".)

ESN: Home Office in the dark over vendors

“Control rooms use an unknown number of other systems that link to Airwave and will therefore need upgrading” MPs warned this month.

Astonishingly, they added, eight years into efforts to deliver the new network, the Home Office (which is in charge of delivering the contract) “does not know how many vendors provide these systems…”

Parliament’s Public Account’s Committee (PAC) has now called for the Home Office, which is in charge of the project, to “set out an outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN by the end of 2023, including when they will be prototyped, built, and tested in real world conditions.”

(Apparently, eight years and £2 billion of taxpayers' money does not even buy you an “outline plan” for prototyping, let alone a working network.)

The Home Office told PAC that it were approaching the project again it would take a prime contractor approach rather than trying to run it itself (with the help of Deloitte; a contract with the latter ends this year…)

Contracts were awarded to deliver a replacement ESN in 2015. EE won an award for the main network infrastructure, and Motorola a contract for software and additional hardware. Yet eight years and multiple critical reports in, £2 billion has been spent but no ESN has been built.

(In January 2020 a contract notice revealed that ruggedised handsets developed by Samsung under a £221 million tender couldn’t be used as the network was not ready. The market notice admitted that “immaturity of the standards and the lack of support in current devices and networks”, meant they “are simply not useable with the network in its current state” Current estimates are now for ESN to be running by around 2029.)

Millions in mounting costs transitional costs meanwhile are having to be borne by the emergency services; already cash-strapped after years of public sector funding cuts and now a high inflationary environment.

ESN: Commercial approach is "suboptimal"

PAC said: “We remain concerned the Department does not have the capability to successfully bring the various elements of ESN together. ESN is a complex programme which was set up using a commercial approach that the Department admits is suboptimal but has decided not to change.

“Persisting with the same commercial structure means it will still have to contend with the same problems of integrating the work of different suppliers. The software Motorola was delivering must work seamlessly with EE’s network, control room systems provided by an unknown number of vendors, and with devices (in aircraft and vehicles as well as handsets).

"We have often seen integration cause issues in major programmes, and remain concerned that the Department does not have the skills to make this work effectively. It has previously tried to use contracts to make suppliers responsible for integration or to acquire capabilities, but these approaches have not worked so far" the committee added.

See also: ‘29 systems to order boots’ – MOD warned on digital strategy hurdles

Criticism of Motorola’s joint role in running the existing and highly cash-generative Airwave system as well as its central role in the replacement ESN saw it walk away from the former in 2021.

PAC on July 14, 2023 said: “In 2019, we warned that Motorola’s dual role in Airwave and ESN disincentivised it from delivering ESN, and although the Department has taken a necessary decision to replace Motorola, it did not resolve this situation through astute contract management.

“Instead, it has had to rely on the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) investigating the Airwave contract and on Motorola deciding to leave ESN – a decision which the Department did not seem to anticipate.”

Emergency services, meanwhile, are “temporarily disbanding their dedicated ESN teams that had been preparing for testing and transition.”

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.

Read the whole sorry tale and weep here.

The UK gov't has a legacy of failed IT projects: These 6 things need to change, says NAO