The Home Office’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) programme is a spectacular failure of governance

It’s time to stop the madness and pull the plug on this programme now!

Now may not be the best time to pick holes in a programme that was launched eight years ago but has struggled ever since. Especially since my business, Mentor, is all about helping clients to salvage business-critical programmes that are holed below the waterline.

But, let’s face it, the ESN programme is not going anywhere fast, without a major rethink.

In 2011, the Home Office decided to replace Airwave, the communications network used by the police, fire and ambulance services, with a new platform – the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

At the time, we were told that ESN would save money by sharing the new commercial 4G network – and improve performance through access to high-speed data.

After 14 years – 6 years of planning and eight years of futile execution effort – the programme is now six years late with a £2bn overspend – and rising. And we still have no idea when ESN will be launched or when the existing Airwave network can be turned off.

The blue light services have grown weary of the Home Office’s trail of broken promises – and its inability to produce a credible plan to complete ESN.

Having spent more than 30 years salvaging over 100 major transformation programmes, I have seen many failed implementation efforts.

Yet the extent of the collapse on ESN is off the charts.

Without a change in approach, ESN is doomed to fail.  The Home Office should pull the plug on ESN – before even more public money is squandered chasing another unrealistic fantasy.

Grim fairy tales

Whenever a programme runs into trouble, the programme leadership typically tells comforting fairy tales to play down serious problems and to divert attention away from the true horror of the actual position.

Never has this been more accurate than in the case of the Home Offices’ bodged programme to replace Airwave with a new platform. Dubbed ESN (Emergency Services Network), it is intended to be the new communications network for the Police, Fire and Ambulance services.

Planning for the Airwave replacement commenced in 2011, and the contracts for the new ESN platform were eventually let by the Home Office in 2015. At that time, ESN was due to complete in 2019.

But in April 2023, neither the new ESN network – nor the much-heralded cost savings have materialised. In truth, the cost savings were always questionable.

In a masterclass of understatement, Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office, in their latest review in March 2023, said:

“After eight years and almost £2 billion, it is extremely worrying that the Home Office does not know when the ESN will be ready or what it will cost.”

Sam Trendall, writing in January 2023’s Civil Service World cites the latest Home Office’s own data:

“The most recent set of major project data published by the Home Office indicated that the estimated cost of delivering ESN to completion now stands at a little over £12bn. This means that, in the best case scenario, the platform will launch seven years late and at double the originally intended cost.

Unlucky 13

On her own admission, Dame Meg Hillier, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), has reviewed ESN on 13 occasions. Yet, each time Home Office officials trot out the same fairy tales to the PAC about why the programme has been delayed – again – and how their latest recovery plan will put the programme back on track.

Previous hearings are forgotten about. Lessons are conveniently swept under the rug. And historical warnings about the high risks involved with ESN continue to be ignored.

The last two PAC reviews conducted in March and April 2023 highlight that we are now as far away from seeing a successful ESN implementation as we were in 2011 – although the excuses have changed over time.   

As with previous reviews, the latest Public Accounts Committee report confirms that we are once again in “jam tomorrow” territory.

There’s nothing new from the Home Office to inspire confidence the result will be any different next time around.

We’ve heard of no achievements since the last PAC review in 2019, just more bad news and hollow promises of intent.  Reliable forecasts on delivery commitments have been as rare as hens’ teeth.

ESN flouts every axiom of programme execution

These axioms are the immutable “laws” of programme execution and must be in place to underpin success:

  • The Home Office and the key stakeholders – the emergency services, are still not truly aligned.
  • There’s no programme plan. Just a wish list of moving targets with no firm delivery dates to serve as a baseline for an agreed design.
  • Home Office leadership and organisation has been poor, led by a constantly changing cast of players.
  • Supplier management has been non-existent. Motorola has left the programme and there’s no credible handset provider in place.
  • There are no working interdependencies across the programme.
  • There’s no culture of collaboration. Instead, a culture of self-preservation has taken hold. No one seems to put their head above the parapet and tell it as it is.

The ESN programme is now “on pause” and key staff have been reallocated to other programmes. Experience tells me it will take several years before the mists clear and a credible forward path is nailed down with an alternative supplier. The execution phase is likely to run well into the next decade.

A Frankenstein programme that’s out of control

This over-engineered, over-complicated programme is the stuff of Frankenstein. Worse, the monster is still out of control.

Now that the Home Office has fallen out with Motorola, anyone who thinks it’s possible to seamlessly switch from one supplier to another – without a glitch – is deluded.

The notion that a new supplier can provide out-of-the-box features for many of the temporary “point solutions” already deployed by the emergency services is equally mistaken.  

The way forward is an execution minefield – littered with unexploded ordnance.

The key question is: would the emergency services prefer new solutions over the ad hoc measures they have already been forced to deploy because of never-ending delays to ESN?

The emergency services expressed qualified support at the latest Public Accounts Committee review. But – and it is a big but – this support hinges on ESN performance matching Airwave’s 99.8% “push to talk” voice availability.  And, significantly, that ESN would be affordable with lower operating costs than Airwave.

Without divine intervention, it is unclear how ESN can do this. Costs are skyrocketing, and it is inconceivable that ESN’s operating costs will be lower than Airwave’s.

Independent scrutiny is absent – the public has been let down

The Public Accounts Committee – and the many expert panels set up to review this programme – are intended to fulfil their public duty and protect the public from government indulgences like ESN.

Perhaps Dame Meg Hillier should remind herself of the words she uses in her video about the role of the PAC:

“We’ve got to use our power to call out government when it’s overegging something – and also make sure that when it is delivering a project that we call it in early enough to make a difference before billions of pounds have been wasted”.

With respect to Dame Meg, billions have already been squandered, and it’s far from over. ESN is a first-rate example where the PAC has made no discernible difference.

On ESN, the Public Accounts Committee has proved toothless throughout – only expressing mild exasperation and making abstract recommendations.

Having watched all the recent PAC reviews, Sir Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office and his team at the Home Office are running rings around the PAC.

It’s pure theatre. There would be plenty of material here for the scriptwriters of Yes Minister or The Thick Of It.

Part of the problem is the Public Accounts Committee itself.  Its mandate is so broad – from bulb energy to tax compliance – that any review of ESN can only skim the surface.

The committee does not seem to have any means of making sure critical remedial actions are implemented. Although James Cartlidge, the Exchequer Secretary, tells us that the Government accepts over 90% of the PAC’s recommendations. Accepting recommendations is one thing; implementing them is the only thing that matters.

It’s time to stop flogging a dead horse

The first step in solving any problem is recognising that there is one.

ESN is the rule rather than the exception. Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner’s research in their excellent book “How Big Things Get Done” reveals that only 8.5% of programs come in on time – and meet their budget, with less than 1% coming anywhere close to delivering their planned benefits. McKinsey’s research also puts programme failure rate at 70%.

And this situation is much more common than many executives believe.

The seeds of failure in every programme are sown at the start by flouting the axioms of programme management. For ESN, what we see today was baked-in between 2011 and 2015.

ESN is in a terminal stall

After eight years of stop-start execution, the Home Office should now put its hand up and face reality. It has a 24-carat problem on its hands. The programme is in a terminal stall, and a catastrophic impact is guaranteed.

ESN performance has been abysmal. The programme has failed on every conceivable dimension – budget, timescale, and benefits.

It has cost a bomb and delivered nothing.  Worse, we have seen nothing to suggest this grim performance will not continue.

The only thing that seems to keep ESN running is management arrogance, the threat of public humiliation and the inability of the Public Accounts Committee to get to grips with it. 

There has been no accountability or acknowledgement of these gross execution failures at the public’s expense.

Unless the Public Accounts Committee acts soon, the likelihood of even more Black Swan events appearing in the next ten years increases. ESN could easily be considered one of the biggest public sector failures of all time.

Without question, the Home Office is flogging a dead horse.

There is no “jam tomorrow.”

Yet each time the PAC reviews the programme, it somehow gets to roll the dice again – with impunity.

The Home Office is deluding itself that it sees light at the end of the tunnel. ESN has already passed the point of no return. 

Surely, Sir Matthew and his team realise it’s no longer practical or economical to continue with ESN in its present form.  It is not possible to ignore immutable laws of programme execution and casually expect success.

The Home Office now has a golden opportunity to stop grasping at straws and launch a new slimmed-down, less complex programme to deliver what the emergency services need.

The question is will they do it – or are there too many self-serving agendas causing obstacles?

About the author

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