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When asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow a government off course, Harold Macmillan reportedly replied: “Events, my dear boy, events”. No-one can deny that the four years since 2008 have brought more than our fair share of events and that the economic reverberations of these now challenge every part of the public sector. But even before the financial crisis took hold, work was already underway on a programme that today holds the potential to help mitigate the impact of the fiscal squeeze on public services and to provide a catalyst not only for cash savings, but also tangible improvements in service.
In 2006, led by the Cabinet Office, collaborative work started between the public sector and key communications suppliers that paved the way to the Public Services Network (PSN). Working together in a way unprecedented in any country or industry, the technical standards, security, service management, governance and commercial framework took shape for what is effectively a secure internet for public services providers. With the completion of that work, the UK now has a unique opportunity.
Network of networks
PSN is the foundation of the Government’s ICT Strategy, providing an assured ‘network of networks’ for sharing services as well as encouraging efficiency and collaboration across public sector organisations. The past twelve months have seen the vision of the Government ICT Strategy come into sharper focus, driven by the need to reduce cost whilst protecting or improving the quality of public services, and PSN’s pivotal role in that vision is fast being realised. The Codes or standards that define PSN have been in place since July 2011 and now suppliers and users are completing PSN certification to verify their compliance with these and gain common information assurance, applicable right across government.
The fact that Local Authorities are amongst the vanguard achieving early PSN ‘Code of Connection’ certification as users highlights that although Central Government is mandated to achieve PSN compliance by 2014, there is equal or even greater appetite for adoption at the local and regional level. The two national PSN Frameworks have also now been let, allowing customers across the public sector to procure network connectivity and services more efficiently and making tangible an open, competitive and accessible marketplace for interoperable ICT services. Some of the largest public service providers including major Central Government Departments, Health, Police and Local Authorities are already planning to use the PSN Frameworks.
Another significant step has been the incorporation and launch in June this year of the PSNGB, the industry association for PSN suppliers, with membership already extending to nearly thirty companies, both large and small, that are collectively working with the Cabinet Office to bring PSN to life. PSNGB is a formal part of the PSN Operating Model and brings industry expertise and commitment to the programme, helping to grow an open and competitive marketplace for members’ services and to highlight to customers and industry the benefits of moving to PSN.
Across the public sector, the transition to PSN has started, with many organisations already developing plans to become compliant. But whilst this is undoubtedly important they must also look beyond this to what the PSN will ultimately enable for their organisation – in other words, the innovation that follows PSN certification and the interoperability it delivers. For example, how can networks and voice or unified communications services used by a Council be shared with others in the region, aggregating demand to improve value for money, creating a common infrastructure and cutting support costs? How can storage and processing or applications from data centres best be shared? Can the existence of PSN and secure cloud services be used as a catalyst for regional economic development, encouraging the growth of small, innovative application developers? Or how can public service workers can work more flexibly and securely from different locations whilst sharing appropriate information across organisational boundaries?
The PSNGB sees the transition to PSN as more than just an opportunity to simplify and lower the cost of networking, though this in itself is significant. By putting in place a ‘common gauge railway’ for ICT across the public sector, PSN can be a catalyst for public service innovation – bringing opportunities to transform working practices, collaborate much more effectively, improve efficiency and make a tangible difference to communities and citizens across the UK.
A joined-up approach to working
As well as saving cash on ICT in the short term - by 2014 central government departments alone could be saving up to £130m a year because of the PSN - the public sector can reap much greater financial and service benefits from a more joined up approach to working, breaking down barriers between different agencies and authorities. By making it easier for public service organisations to buy and connect ICT networks and to share services, PSN is creating opportunities that haven’t existed before. In practical terms this could mean Local Authorities, Health and Police working together with a common network serving them all at appropriate security levels. It can mean a Health Trust collaborating through conference calls and shared information with Social Services, doctors and voluntary groups or community projects to smooth the process of hospital discharge, freeing beds and ensuring continuity of care for patients. It can mean ICT services used by one Local Authority being shared with others to remove duplication, improve sustainability and promote good practice.
It’s clear, however, that managing the transition to PSN and the business change required to realise significant improvements isn’t always easy. Even something as seemingly straightforward as sharing information on a conference call between agencies involves different working practices and a cultural shift in the way organisations behave. Research commissioned by different PSNGB members has highlighted a common conclusion; that the greatest barrier to PSN adoption and innovation is the cultural challenge involved, closely allied to a lack of awareness amongst the non-technical community of PSN.
The research also revealed that there are many in the public sector who are less clear about what PSN is and can enable, or even where their organisation stands in adopting it. This reinforces the recent recommendation from the Public Administration Select Committee that more needs to be done to make sure knowledge about how modern information systems and technology can be used to improve public services is shared effectively across professional groups within the civil services and not restricted to the IT crowd. But there’s also very encouraging news in the research findings, revealing widespread optimism towards the PSN programme – with many public servants considering it crucial to their organisation’s efficiency drive. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of public servants who consider themselves well informed about PSN regard its adoption to be important or very important to their organisation’s efficiency programme. The same research found that many public servants underestimate the role that PSN can play as a platform for innovation but unless they start to take this view, PSN risks being seen just as centralised procurement rather than also an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how public services operate and deliver.
The PSN is all about enabling innovation and transformation rather than being an end in itself, and the PSNGB is now playing a leading role in emphasising the benefit of services running across PSN and new ways of working and delivering services. As a first step, PSNGB is running a series of events, in partnership with the Cabinet Office, to provide an update on the latest progress of PSN, explain the Frameworks and offer advice on how to achieve PSN compliance, transition to PSN and to reap the wider benefits it offers.
Phil Gibson, Chairman of PSNGB, said: “We are delighted to be taking a leading role in making the PSN real and vibrant. Together with the Cabinet Office and GPS we are encouraging the public sector to work with our members to see how transition can be effected and to realise the benefits.
PSN is very much open for business. Our members, who are both larger suppliers and SMEs, have PSN services available today. Now the procurement route is open to make PSN benefits tangible, accessible and achievable to user and supplier alike. We look forward to the July events and to growing our association to further benefit the industry in future.”
Craig Eblett, PSN programme director in the Cabinet Office, said: “I welcome the incorporation of PSNGB and their leadership on behalf of industry in delivering the PSN Roadshows with the PSN Programme team. PSNGB recognise and are encouraging the increased competition the Frameworks will bring and I look forward to PSNGB continuing to help enable innovation and savings for the public sector and create good business opportunities for industry.”
Aimed at potential PSN users across public sector organisations, PSNGB is to hold events around the UK in September, taking the message to a wider audience and enabling potential PSN adopters to talk first hand with the people who created and are now delivering the PSN programme and services. More information will be published through the PSNGB website at www.psngb.org.uk