The Home Office’s announcement last month to phase the rollout of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) from January 2019 has brought some much-needed clarity to the fate of the beleaguered new network, and the emergency services who will come to use it. We welcomed the news, because we know the ESN will bring real benefits to the emergency services and the citizens they serve, so the sooner it is implemented the better. The recent news has, however, shone a light on the need for IT projects to focus on interoperability if they are to be agile enough to adapt to the changes in their environment. Change is inevitable, so you might as well prepare for it.
The ongoing uncertainty and delays around the ESN over the last few years led many in the emergency services to postpone or even cancel their planned IT investments. The Police and other emergency services don’t want to be locked into a system that will become obsolete, so you can understand their reluctance to invest in anything until the ESN is fully up and running. But the reality is that almost all IT needs to connect to legacy and future infrastructure. Delaying or cancelling projects which take advantage of the ESN is a mistake; much-needed investment should never be delayed in one area just because something is held up elsewhere. Surely you should build it now and connect to the ESN when it’s ready?
The fact of the matter is this; the ESN is not the only ambitious project currently being rolled out or considered across the public sector. There are many projects on the go at once, and so there should be given the size of the public sector and the government’s own digital ambitions. Just looking at those projects that will impact the police and security services specifically, we have the National Law Enforcement Data (NLED) programme which aims to replace numerous legacy data systems with the single Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS), the Home Office Biometrics programme, and even the National Emergency Plan (NEP), to name but a few. While there will always be a reason to postpone investment until a key project has been completed, you cannot halt the advance while you wait for everyone to catch up.
A little perspective
It is worth briefly putting the ESN delay into perspective. It is an ambitious and necessary project that will bring significant benefits to the emergency services, improving communication and coordination between the services at a much lower cost than the existing Airwave network. According to the National Audit Office its delay will cost £330m a year, and it will take us longer to benefit from the improvements it will bring, but it is worth remembering that we already have a working system in the interim (albeit limiting in its capacity). The emergency services won’t grind to a halt and the public will continue to be kept safe while the ESN is developed. Airwave may be old and outdated, but it continues to keep the (flashing blue) lights on for the time-being.
The ESN delay is also not the only IT challenge facing the emergency services. In the Police, poor IT systems and disjointed processes hamper investigations because officers are unable to access data in a timely and efficient manner. In fact, one quarter of police forces require access to six or more databases just to work on a single case. That’s six different systems, often with different login details and passwords. Siloed data is not just inefficient and increases the risk of errors, but it threatens the morale of an already overstretched workforce.
Likewise, the centralisation of government services on DirectGov and the introduction of the “Cloud First” mandate for public sector IT has raised demands for the digitisation of public services at every possible opportunity. While top-down support from Whitehall for digitisation is fantastic news for ultimately delivering better and more tax-efficient services to citizens, the process of getting there without significant disruption or limited financial resources brings about its own challenges.
The overstretched workforce referenced earlier brings us to another point; the challenges facing the emergency services go far beyond their IT systems; nearly a decade of austerity combined with a growing population has resulted in everyone in the emergency services needing to do more with less and less. The emergency services are overstretched at every level. Speaking in 2017, Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons’ public accounts committee, said “sustained funding cuts” meant there were now almost 20 per cent fewer police officers and staff than eight years ago”. The NHS too is facing down what can only be commonly described as a funding crisis. Cecilia Anim, president of the Royal College of Nurses has claimed there are over 40,000 nursing vacancies across the UK.
Stay agile to stay on course
The ESN delay is simply the latest example of the need to be agile in today’s IT environment. Thankfully, with the widespread use of agile development practices, DevOps and common networking and API standards, interoperability is no longer the mirage it once was. Everyone building IT – whether for the public or private sector – should always be building with interoperability in mind.
With legacy systems providing poor functionality, data being stored in multiple silos, and the inevitable disconnect that occurs when working across multiple agencies, Police officers and their partners in the emergency services are challenged with the efficient collection, analysis and distribution of data and intelligence every single day. The emergency services need a way to access and distribute data in a cohesive way. They need a way to integrate their existing systems which is both cost-effective, can be up-and-running quickly, and doesn’t require a brand new, risky, rip-and-replace approach. This is why services like PoliceBox, which provide officers with a single portal on their smartphone to capture, report and gather intelligence data from multiple data sources and agencies, are helping to transform emergency services today, irrespective of the delays to the ESN and other projects. All IT needs to connect to legacy and future services. PoliceBox was designed to be agnostic of the systems it communicates with, so while it will benefit from the enhanced capacity of ESN when it launches, it can still work on low bandwidth systems like Tetra to deliver benefits to officers today.
It is impossible to predict the future, and you cannot control the destiny of external projects, so the best thing you can do is build your own systems on open standards to maximise compatibility with the systems of today, while protecting compatibility with the systems of tomorrow. There will always be a new initiative on the horizon, but you must never use that as an excuse to stand still.
Simon Hall is CEO and co-founder of workforce mobility specialists, Coeus Software