Government and the latest tech don't mix, says UK civil servant of £11B ESN mess

Public sector might want to 'wait a bit' before buying into bleeding edge, Sir Matthew Rycroft muses

Opinion Earlier this year, the prime minister launched the UK government's plan to cement the nations place as "a science and technology superpower by 2030."

However, in the opinion of one of the government's most senior civil servants, the public sector and cutting-edge technology mix about as well as oil and water.

Speaking to Parliament's Home Affairs Committeelate last week, Sir Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, responded to a question about whether lessons could be learned from the disastrous upgrade to the blue-light emergency services voice and data network.

The ESN could be up to 12 years late and has seen its expected budget more than double to £11 billion ($13.92 billion). But those concerned about the waste might be reassured to know that at least some collective knowledge has been acquired by the civil service along the way.

Sir Matthew mused that the thing "for me personally, is that the cutting edge of technology is not always the best place to be, if you are a government — not always, although sometimes it should be.

"On this sort of issue [ESN], there are some benefits in going quickly but not being at the absolute cutting edge of technology, because if you are at that edge you end up being buffeted by all the winds of where that technology goes.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been better at the very beginning of this programme, several years ago, to wait a bit and use the existing Airwave programme for a bit longer, which as it happened is what we ended up doing anyway because of the delays. As the technology improves, you can then get the benefit of that technology. That is not a lesson that will always apply, I don't think, but it does in this case," he told MPs.

It's a typically British approach to muddling through, which might be best applied to rearranging a kitchen garden of some tumble-down country pile rather than a 21st-century communications network critical to human life. Nonetheless, the ESN might attract admiration for taking muddling through to a whole new epic scale.

Out with the old, in with the new... yes and the supplier

Adding to the technical delays to the project is a failure to anticipate the commercial consequences of the Home Office's project management on ESN. As both the supplier of the old system — Airwave, based on TETRA technology — and a significant chunk of the replacement ESN, Motorola represented such a potential for a conflict of interest that the the market regulator had to step in.

The Competition and Markets Authority went on to observe that Airwave's market position gave it the "ability to price services above levels the CMA would expect to prevail in a competitive market and results in a detrimental effect on customers."

The regulator has proposed charge controls to limit the price by more than 40 percent. However, Airwave took the issue to the Competition Appeal Tribunal. The first hearing took place in early August, with a ruling to follow.

To prevent the CMA from forcing it to sell Airwave, Motorola walked away from its £400 million ($506 million) contract for ESN in November 2021. The Home Office is going through procurement to replace Motorola on Lot 2 of the contract and expects to appoint a new supplier in 2024.

Rycroft assured MPs that the Home Office was "on track with that stage of the re-procurement" and would update them as soon as possible.

Home Affairs Committee member Simon Fell, a Conservative MP, pointed out that the government had written off £135 million ($157 million) "as a consequence of Motorola leaving the programme."

Rycroft assured MPs he did not "anticipate more write-offs at this stage."

He added: "We have been working hard with Motorola and other commercial partners to ensure that the vast majority of the investments that Motorola has made will be used in the future emergency services network." ®

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