PSN: The Turning Point

2013 is a turning point in the development of the Public Services Network (PSN). Savings have been made through network rationalisation, better value network services and more effective procurement. Compliance with and connections into the PSN are on the increase. PSNGB want to accelerate that progress whilst illuminating the real purpose of PSN – as the platform for more radical change that enables better, more cost effective and sustainable public services.             

A combination of transition deadlines and sector commitments are compelling public sector organisations to gain PSN certification, select service providers and to connect to the growing PSN. So there is little surprise that the PSN is starting to gain momentum and magnetism as the route to access shared resources and collaboration partners. Early adopters are connected and there has been a marked upswing in commitment from across the public sector, in particular from the Health and Justice sectors. And as the plans published on the Cabinet Office PSN website show, the major Central Government departments are already well advanced with their own transitions.

Traffic Growth
A further strong push towards PSN is the requirement for all organisations wishing to continue using GSi/GCSX services, such as secure mail relay, under the GSi Convergence Framework (GCF) to connect to those services solely through PSN by the end of March 2014. With 588 users of GCF services, this marks a significant watershed in the programme and, as they exercise their new choice of PSN connectivity provider, an impending growth of traffic across the Government Conveyance Network (GCN) – the core of the PSN – as data is passed between competing service providers.  It’s also essential for user organisations to gain their PSN certification – the Code of Connection or ‘CoCo’ – without waivers or exemptions before connecting to PSN.
    
This transition to PSN is worth putting into perspective as its emerging scale, proven capacity to save cash today and the much greater transformational potential it holds are essential to unlocking far greater efficiencies in future.  PSN is actually shaping up to be a factor of 50 to 75 times larger than the old GSi (Government Secure Intranet). To visualise that, think of it not as just fixed links between Whitehall departments or set of spokes connecting Local Authorities to a set of central applications but as a single, ubiquitous conduit shared by millions of people delivering public services. It’s shared environment based on common standards to keep costs down, with appropriate levels of security where they’re needed and with access to a rich choice of inter-changeable services and content from an open and competitive marketplace of providers.
    
Customers are making immediate cashable savings by shifting from multiple duplicated networks to a common network, often including a range of local or regional partner organisations. The Unicorn  project, bringing together authorities in Surrey and Berkshire is one case in point, replacing up to forty networks with one, connecting at least 20 public services and saving £5.25 million in the process.
    
A further good example is in Cambridgeshire, where the regional PSN has resulted in savings of 50 per cent, more than £1m pa, based on what it would have otherwise spent on networking. There are many other powerful instances of regional aggregation and savings, including those in Staffordshire, Yorkshire & Humberside, Dorset, Kent and Hampshire to name but a few.
    
The initial business case for gaining the compliance tick in the box, consolidating and connecting is compelling. But if there are strong reasons to achieve PSN compliance and connection in the short term does is follow that the intention and capacity is there to capitalise on those first steps into PSN to tackle bigger challenges?  

Positive Change
Gaining the initial PSN ‘tick’ is important, but PSNGB believes that the real opportunity lies in thinking beyond this. It means understanding the potential of PSN as the common link that can facilitate positive changes in the way that people and services work, realising savings well beyond network costs, creating greater efficiencies from collaboration and resource sharing and enabling improved economic and social outcomes at both local and national levels.
    
It’s a point made clearly by the National Audit Office (NAO) in recognising that early savings, whilst important, can be unsustainable in the long run and that service innovation and change are needed to generate sustained efficiencies and better services.  To quote from a recent NAO report: “This is the greatest challenge for PSN - to sustain cost saving whilst articulating the much greater economies and sustainable public service improvements that must be built on PSN.”
    
It requires that PSN be exploited not just as a set of network connections, but as a platform for innovation and public service transformation. Again in the words of the NAO, it means moving to “ICT solutions that reform public services and the way that government works”. This brings with it a new set of challenges. Beyond the not inconsiderable task of setting standards, maintaining compliance and smarter procurement, exploiting PSN demands that we tackle the process, people and management challenges of aligning different organisations to collaborate and co-deliver public services.
    
To explore this potential, PSNGB commissioned original research from Kable, interviewing 25 senior public sector executives during March and April 2013. The research looked at the top priorities and challenges facing leaders in public services, highlighting in particular the role of collaboration in addressing these issues and hence the potential for the exploitation of PSN to deliver benefits and efficiencies much greater than its early dividends in cutting communications costs.
    
It was no surprise that the top challenges were linked to budget and resource constraints, strongly flavoured with change and uncertainty in the face of increasing demand for services.

Resource Constraints
Understandably, budget and resource constraints topped the list of challenges unprompted. However, the consistent underlying message was that the potential of short term cost savings had been exhausted and that more transformational change was needed to meet the ongoing challenge of delivering better services for less money.
     
One CEO commented “we find ourselves in times of great financial difficulty where the demands on services are increasing and need to find new ways of doing things”.  Others noted “we simply won’t meet the current and future demand if we carry on the same as we do now… our major priority has to be new service models” and “we have done the easy savings [and] more difficult savings and we are left with fundamental changes”.
     
At the local level, budget challenges were augmented by local needs, particularly in maintaining services and coping with both levels of demand and the requirement to create local employment and growth. In the words of one CEO “the biggest challenges are around a growing population and bringing in more employment to the area…[whilst]  balancing the books and being able to define a sustainable role for the authority as there is a massive regeneration agenda and community leadership role.”  
    
Overall, responses pointed strongly towards the need for innovation and change to reconcile sustained savings with maintaining and improving services. Leaders were focused on actively prioritising services and investigating new operating and service delivery models for greater efficiency.  60 per cent indicated that they were exploring these new business or service delivery models, though to date, relatively very few organisations had started to implement them.

Priorities
Quotes from the leaders questioned illustrate their priorities, as this representative sample shows:
  
 “The priority is unchanged from what it always has been… how best to improve the quality of life for the people in my area” (CEO).
  
 “Identifying opportunities to modernise and to reduce our operating cost“ (Chief Exec).
  
 “Focus on improving on efficiency… where there used to be separate council and police front office, now there is one” (Chief Constable).  
    
“Our key priority is protecting those most vulnerable, but it is also trying to grow our local economy and deliver services as effectively as we can” (CFO).
    
Our research highlighted that senior leaders’ challenges and to some extent their priorities were reasonably consistent, particularly within sectors, hence was a broad appetite for shared service delivery and collaborative activities. More than half viewed collaboration as essential and all respondents recognised the need for collaboration in service delivery.  For example, “[Collaboration] is crucial and will be even more so as we move forward” (CEO), “[Collaboration] is absolutely vital and there is still significant opportunity in spaces between services we can fully exploit” (CEO).
    
However, the specific types of collaboration and shared activities varied from organisation to organisation, even within the same sector, depending on their particular political, economic and social environment.
    
There was real recognition that collaboration was hard and leaders’ experience showed that success depended on finding the right partners.  The criteria for success here were determined more by shared vision and complementary capabilities than necessarily geography or sector.  As a result, whilst local collaboration tended to be preferred, mainly because of shared environmental factors, the potential for national collaboration was also of interest.

Enthusiasm and caution
Given the frequent cross‑organisation nature of service delivery, collaboration regarded as essential by over half the participants. The challenges were well recognised too, perhaps reflecting some of their more salutary past experiences. Consequently leaders’ quotes tempered enthusiasm with caution and the difficulty of realising joint working and shared resources in practice.  
    
The more circumspect acknowledged that whilst collaboration was an important tool, it had to be productive.  One CEO commented that although “potentially an important part of the tool kit… collaboration is not just about partnering with other local authorities… there is a real danger of it becoming a trend [that] may not be to their benefit in the long run”.  
    
Another CEO noted that “it is not a silver bullet for all issues nor should it be scoffed at”, with a further commenting that it was “very challenging to do, it looks good on paper but it does take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make it work”.
    
Health respondents uniquely mentioned the mixed messages around collaboration and competition within their sector, noting that; “collaboration is really important… [but] one week we will be hearing all about having to compete with each other to provide better services and the next… that we have to collaborate to achieve savings”.
    
Asked whether current shared service delivery initiatives were meeting original expectations, respondents were generally positive, but with some caveats.  A common view was that it’s hard work and successful shared approaches need detailed preparation and analysis, with time required first to get agreement and then deliver results.  Understandably, relatively quick wins were pursued first, one CEO noting that “they are getting more difficult.  We first picked [those] that would deliver the most and quickest first and we are now striving to do the more difficult things”.
    
Leaders had to try innovative ideas out, scale what worked and cut those that didn’t early, one CFO commenting “they are delivering what we expected them to. We did a lot of work before moving forward… [there were] others where we pulled the plug [if they] would not deliver. Another CEO stated that “the ones we have completed [met expectations], but there are others we have explored but that have not reached fruition”.

Advance preparation was clearly a success factor; according to one CEO “we put a lot of effort on the business case at the beginning… we look slow at starting, but it definitely pays dividends at the end as you get what you were looking for.”

Barriers
Potential barriers to collaboration were noted, though these were not seen as a reason for inaction. A common barrier was different definitions and interpretations among participants, with the example given of one project that failed because the criteria used to define ‘vulnerable’ varied. Likewise partners needed look beyond their own local needs and to reconcile different views.
    
Not only must collaborators share a common view of the issues and outcomes, but they should also have balanced and proportionate shares in the benefits. One CFO noted that they gained relatively little financial benefit from sharing because they already had a lower cost base than their partners.
    
Risk aversion was also cited, with large, game changing initiatives requiring upfront investment seen as too risky. Consequently none of the participants identified existing radical transformations and where the need to explore new operating models was recognised progress still at the exploratory stage.

PSN is taking off and the case for gaining complying, consolidating and connecting is strong with cashable savings genuinely being delivered. Given the overriding objective within government to reduce public spending, the near term pressure will remain on cost cutting, de-duplication and the commoditisation of ICT.
    
PSNGB shares the NAO’s concern over the sustainability of savings derived from rationalisation and price erosion alone. Our research indicates that maintaining and increasing savings will demand more collaboration within and between public sector bodies. It will demand determination to address the tough but rewarding challenges of realising new ways of working and innovation in public service delivery.  Greater and more effective alignment of different organisations, sometimes with different goals and cultures, to collaborate and co-create public services looks like the only route forward for organisations that have done all the cost cutting they can.
    
The “fundamental change” and “new ways of doing things” we identified mean redesigning public services from the outside in, starting with the citizen and replacing old processes, changing systems, re-aligning the way people do things and giving them the tools to work more flexibly and quickly.  It means joining up, working closely and sharing resources rather than protecting or competing.
    
Above all it means openness, agility and innovation as the keys to delivering better services in the face of unlimited demand and shrinking budgets.  
    
PSNGB believes that PSN needs to progress fast from compliance and connection to exploitation and transformation. There are some early examples of how this can be achieved, but much more remains to be done.
    
We plan to illustrate how PSN-enabled public services could be delivered, quantify the potential benefits, explore what needs to be done to bridge the gap between this vision and the current state and to continue working with senior leaders to communicate the findings and to help bring about change.

Further information
PSNGB exists to provide a forum for its members, and promotes innovation, discussion, development and the exchange of non-competitive information within its membership. For further information visit psngb.org

Please register to comment on this article