The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) issues red card to Home Office’s ESN programme

The circus continues

The Home Office’s botched program to replace Airwave – the current emergency services communications network, with ESN continues to astonish.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has just published its 2022-23 Annual Report (Published July 2023). Clearly, the IPA has had an epiphanic moment.

The ESN program is now officially rated as “red” by HM Government.  This means the IPA now believes ESN is “unachievable” with problems that “do not appear to be manageable or resolvable” in its current form.

This is remarkable given that in June 2021, the IPA gave ESN an “amber” rating when the programme was in the same chaotic state it is today.

The dilemma for the Home Office

This places the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Matthew Rycroft, in the jaws of the lion.

In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee chairperson, Dame Meg Hillier, in July 2021, Sir Matthew refers to the IPA’s amber rating for ESN in June 2021 as justification for “carrying on”:

“The IPA commissioned a Project Assurance Review (PAR) in June 2021. This gave the programme an Amber rating, acknowledging there are issues to resolve but that they can be resolved.”

Now ESN is officially ranked as a catastrophe, you would imagine this would cause a rethink in the Home Office. They should now make a massive effort to dodge further humiliation and deliver a fit-for-purpose communications network the emergency services could rely on.

Yet the history of this omnishambles suggests otherwise.

Despite the IPA’s epiphany and the recent Public Accounts Committee report describing the Home Office as “disconnected from the reality” of the challenges ahead, nothing seems to be changing.

Perhaps it is because the same “armchair geniuses” advising Sir Matthew in 2021, are still practicing their craft at the Home Office today. They will want to save face by not backing down, comfortable in the knowledge that not one of them will be around when the inevitable meltdown occurs. Sir Matthew will also have left the field of play.

Both the IPA and PAC are frozen – like rabbits in the headlights – powerless it seems to put an end to the Home Office’s insanity and extravagance.

There is a viable alternative

This is particularly galling when there is a perfectly viable alternative approach to that put on the table by the Home Office.

My last blog summarised how ESN can be brought back under control:

1. Operate Airwave and 4G/5G networks in parallel

The Home Office proposes a “Remote Speaker Microphone” workaround due to the lack of 4G/5G device-to-device communication in emergencies. Frontline responders would carry both a 4G/5G smartphone and an extra handset for local communication.

This will cause major operational challenges. Mentor suggests merging Airwave and 4G/5G networks via international standards, as has been successfully achieved in other countries like the USA. In emergencies, workers need only a rugged Airwave handset for cross-network talk groups, retaining communication even without coverage through Airwave’s device-to-device voice service.

Also explore how to increase 4G capacity and build strong foundations for 5G.

2. Repair the relationship with Motorola

The Home Office’s mishandling of Motorola and the company’s subsequent departure from ESN has damaged personal and organisational relationships on all sides.

Despite this, Motorola is a global leader in 4G/5G mission-critical tech used by major telcos globally. Prioritising an effective emergency communication network should override personal issues.

Collaborating with top providers is crucial. The UK government should get over its ego-driven grandeur and strike a reasonable deal with Motorola to sustain Airwave use and provide the mobile device technology for ESN.

3. Reassign programme management to EE.

The incompetence displayed by the Home Office in handling system integration and complex mission-critical programs is to be expected. These specialised tasks demand skills from experienced external professionals the Home Office does not have.

The UK government should consider handing over these responsibilities to EE, which holds a key position within ESN initiative – and has the right expertise and experience. EE is well placed to build on its existing contribution to the ESN programme to establish a robust, dedicated core network for emergency services.

AT&T presently fulfils this role for FirstNet in the United States.

Also find out our guide to program management.

S**t doesn’t just happen! You have to cultivate it!

The Home Office’s position on ESN is in the “you-couldn’t-make-it-up” category. The IPA’s “red card” should step up the pressure on the Home Office to change tack and stop squandering billions of public funds.

With public safety at stake, you would have thought, Sir Matthew and the armchair geniuses would have got the message by now.

Loud. And. Clear.

About the author

David Hilliard is Founder of Mentor Europe, execution specialists in strategic program execution.