Public Services > Central Government

Innovating for safe public sector information sharing

Published 19 May 2015

Innopsis chair Phil Gibson discusses why the benefits are manifest for open and safe public sector information sharing, provided the appropriate information governance standards are in place


With PSN now evolving to be easier to access and use and becoming established as the safe network foundation for sharing services and information across the public sector, the challenge has shifted to how it can be used to help transform public service delivery and improve efficiency.

Building a platform for trusted information sharing

The government has achieved a unique and powerful thing with PSN. Instead of spending billions building a replacement network or a monolithic IT system, it has worked iteratively with industry to define how things should work and agreed common standards, based on commercial good practice. Rather than replacing networks, it has connected them, creating a platform for reform, releasing the potential for a step-change in efficiency and service improvement.

Essentially what we have in PSN is an open, well-understood set of standards that can be implemented so that any organisation can establish a shared network and infrastructure with any other organisation in the public sector. A 'connected community of trust' if you like. With the introduction of the Government Security Classification Policy, twelve months ago, those responsible for sensitive data can tag it, according to its security classification, strengthening PSN as a platform for good information sharing practice across the public sector.

It is important at this time to note how far the public sector has come in a short space of time. Only a handful of years ago central government benefits information could only be accessed on desktop PCs, located in locked rooms within local authorities. This meant physically going to retrieve the information, a process that could take a couple of days, and with the added complexity of getting the data back to the point of need securely. It is because of the push towards a compliance regime that allows Information Asset Owners to know how their data will be handled by the recipient, that we are now able to deliver services digitally, on demand at the point of need.

Meeting the challenge in integrated health and social care

Whilst there have been some great strides in connecting up central and local government, there are some glaring gaps in other parts of the public sector, with health and social care being one of the most pressing. The Department for Health has mapped out its information strategy in the Power of Information, which sets out its 10-year vision to transform information for health and care. Within the plan, focus has been on ways to increase transparency and create a culture of information sharing and the development of a national information portal across health, public health and social care. It was always envisaged that PSN would be used across the health sector, replacing N3 in the NHS. However after seven years, we are still waiting.

The benefits are manifest for open and safe information sharing across the public sector - better transparency and information sharing reduces costs, speeds up resolution and increases efficiencies - key considerations for the struggling health sector. The reason why PSN has not yet arrived in the NHS is also one of its core attributes: the NHS is very open and accessible. You would be hard pushed to access local authority computers without the correct security passes, codes and permissions etc, whereas a hospital information system is relatively easy to access if you have a mind to.

This meant that the health sector felt they could not sign up to PSN compliance regulations in the same way local government can. Added to this you have the complication of the plethora of mobile devices and solutions that are used by a wide range of practitioners to accomplish their jobs on site and while out and about. Excluding all unmanaged devices from accessing PSN data would be a major obstacle in this sector. Then there is the question of how to connect the partners in the voluntary and private sector.

However there is light at the end of the long tunnel and Innopsis is very encouraged to see that the Health and Social Care Information Centre has been surveying people from across the NHS to understand the 'user need' for information sharing. Plans are now well advanced for the N3 replacement and while no one expects it to mirror PSN, we are confident that seamless connectivity between the two will be delivered.

However it is crucial that we deliver the information governance standards that allow people using the new Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) to carry out their challenging roles with the current barriers removed. What is needed is a set of proportionate and appropriate information sharing rules that can be adopted across the sector. The first priority for people working in health and social care is our safety so unless they know exactly how to access and share sensitive data safely and effectively, they will find the quickest and easiest way to move information about. The fact that this happens all the time is the reason behind the appalling number of data breaches that still plague the public sector, more so in health than anywhere else.

Enabling the utopia of shared services

The public sector has had a sustainable procurement and 'cloud first policy' in place for some time now and yet we are a long way from experiencing a culture of resource sharing across different organisations. Just like the Internet but with the required Service Level Guarantees, PSN has delivered the necessary platform to make the location of data and applications irrelevant - at least within the UK. But where is the marketplace that opens up the enormous resources of the UK public sector? Why can't a Head of 'Revs and Bens' go shopping for the best deal on 500 licences hosted securely hosted in the cloud by another local authority, rather than start a new expensive contract?

But it's not just hosting and software we need to see flourishing in a new open and accessible marketplace. Why is innovation in new services such a closely guarded secret? Let's have an open forum where new models for service delivery are shared along with the set of secure cloud-based services needed to deliver them.

The next big challenge for GDS?

In his blog, 'Better for less' , Liam Maxwell spoke about how they had cleaned up PSN to make it faster, cleaner and easier for users; he also spoke about government and digital services and open data but there was no mention of how you bring it all together to deliver new services in better and different ways.

We have the safe and reliable network platform, we have a proportional compliance regime. Health is getting its act together at last and cloud-first is starting to deliver.

The last crucial piece that will unleash the self-sustaining change we need to see is identity assurance for everyone working within public services. The huge productivity and customer service gains that government as a platform can create will only be unlocked when we have removed the barriers to safe information sharing at the point of need.

PSN proved that a collaboration across industry, working hand in glove with government can solve the biggest of challenges. Let's take on the last of the big ones, fix the problem and a new era of public service delivery can begin.

Phil Gibson is chair of Innopsis , the newly-formed industry association for companies driving innovative information sharing for better public services





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