Public Services > Central Government

PSN - a platform for reform

Published 07 July 2014

The PSNGB trade association has published a whitepaper that discusses PSN's future development. It argues that PSN is a trusted platform for innovation and reform amid increasing demand for critical public services


The Public Services Network (PSN) is here. The Cabinet Office PSN team in the Government Digital Service (GDS), suppliers, SOCITM, departments and authorities across the public sector have achieved nearly all the current goals of the programme. Between us, we've established the standards, ensured supplier and customer compliance and completed most of the transition from legacy network connections onto PSN compliant networks. And big savings have been made through more standardised and competitive procurement. It's not been easy, but after some pain and pragmatism, we deserve a collective pat on the back.

So is that it? Do we quietly consign PSN to the 'done' pile, consider it business as usual and get on with the next challenge? That, in the view of PSNGB, would be a catastrophic error. If the aim was solely to make incremental network savings and do what we all do now a little better, then the job's done. But facing the challenge of rising national debt, constrained budgets and increasing demand for critical public services we need to move to business as unusual. And PSN is critical to that transformation. Rather than the end, it's the beginning of PSN as a trusted platform for innovation and reform.

The need for reform
Research carried out for PSNGB by Kable last year with chief executives and chief finance officers across the public sector showed that we've hit the limits of cost cutting and highlighted the need for collaboration and service transformation to meet increasing demands. Their top challenges were linked to budget and resource constraints coupled with change, uncertainty and increasing demand for services. One CEO commented: "...demands on services are increasing and we need (to find) new ways of doing things". Another 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 (and) more difficult savings and we are left with fundamental changes".

We need, in the words of the National Audit Office, " that reform public services and the way that government works". That means not just cutbacks and austerity, but smarter working to sustain and improve services and more exploitation of 'digital' as an enabler of more efficient and better services. We need to change the way that the public sector works to reduce cost, share and re-use resources and collaborate more effectively. And to recognise that services should be focused around the user, the citizen; not a department, authority or system. That in turn means exploiting trusted, open platforms that span the public sector as the foundation for reform and more responsive, accessible and effective services.

There's been discussion of 'Government as a Platform' since 2009. The concept of standardising common capabilities, exploiting, re-using and building on them is very valid. Governments can and must make use of platforms to vastly improve the way they work and provide public services. This in turn means understanding the 'value chain' behind public services, figuring out which bits are common (like buildings, networks, communications, people systems, payments and so on) and which are genuinely unique to a purpose. The common elements should become shared infrastructure, platforms or services; delivered much more cost effectively; increasing operational efficiency and allowing resources to be focused on frontline services.

There are other much bigger benefits here too. As well as taking out unnecessary cost, common platforms mean that people can work more flexibly, wherever they are and they enable information and knowledge to be shared where appropriate across organisational silos.

Why's that important?
Many of our most critical public services such as those involving, for example, children at risk, community dementia care, troubled families, adult social care or major incident response are complex and require multi-agency working. They not only consume disproportionate resource if ineffective, but have immediate impact on peoples' lives and wellbeing. Smarter collaborative working here, sharing appropriate information, using analytics to spot trends and identify issues, then intervening early rather than reacting later to crises can save lives as well as cash. And smarter agile working will also reduce accommodation, energy and people costs, enabling people to work effectively wherever they are; from shared buildings, from home or on the move.

Achieving this means innovating and collaborating across the wider public sector, not just central government services. The original goal of PSN was to connect around 5.5 million people to make this possible. We mustn't lose sight of that, or of the need to look beyond parochial targets to deliver what the end user needs - the citizen urgently looking for services and support, wherever they come from.

The importance of trust
There's another critical success factor here too. Whether we're talking about applying for passports or driving licences online, or allowing our health or other personal information to be shared between departments and authorities, we, the citizens have to trust government to safeguard that information and use it appropriately.

That trust still needs to be established. Trust in government in the UK has fallen from 47% in 2013 to 42%, according to the largest annual survey of trust in public life, compared with trust in business at 56% (Edelman, Jan 2014). And more specifically, a third of UK citizens don't trust government with their personal data; 40% having a high level of concern (Global Research Business Network, Feb 2014). So it's critical that the infrastructure and platforms on which public services are built are not just open and attractive to users and developers, but trusted.

There's another reason why security and trust are fundamental system requirements for infrastructure and platforms too. If they're not inherent in the platform then they can present a barrier and cost when you come to build services and applications on top. That's part of the reason why Apple has created such a popular platform for innovation.

A successful platform needs a set of rules to co-operate and communicate, open and achievable entry criteria and the right level of security and integrity as a given. PSN has established just this; a common trusted layer on which to build shared and inter-operable services that meet user needs and can underpin reform. We've done the spadework. Government has invested in compliance and industry over £100m so far to make PSN infrastructure and services real. Now we need to encourage innovation and growth in the rich and competitive marketplace of trusted services that enable its true potential to be realised.

PSN - the trusted platform for reform
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. Instead of replacing networks, it has connected them, creating a platform for reform, for a step-change in efficiency and service improvement.

PSNGB members, suppliers, have invested and adopted those standards in our services and government customers have also conformed to them. So now, when a department, local authority or police force buys a network or a communications service, if its PSN compliant it'll work with compliant services from other competing suppliers and it'll connect with other parts of government that are also on PSN. Just as importantly, the PSN platform comes with agreed levels of service, integrity and a built-in level of security that's appropriate for most government business. That in itself is a small revolution.

With nearly all major Departments and Local Authorities connected and the Health and Police communities preparing to join soon, PSN is a great achievement by all involved. But we mustn't stop having established the platform. It would be like having Windows without Word or Excel, Amazon without a storefront or an iPhone with no Angry Birds. The PSN platform is already cutting the cost of networks. But even 50% savings (around a billion pounds) here would be just 6% of total government ICT expenditure or 0.2% of total managed expenditure on public services.

There's a wealth of PSN services ready to be added. Services that range from shared 'cloud' services that support key business processes, collaboration tools that help join up justice or health and social care, services that make it easier to have a single network into and around a shared building and those that allow diverse organisations to use common resources, whether they're applications, data centres or emergency control rooms.

The real potential of the platform is the ability to work flexibly in any public building, on the move or from home. It's the ability to respond more effectively to floods, incidents or emergencies. The ability to work together to manage dementia support more effectively, to prevent care crises becoming catastrophes, to improve health and social care outcomes or safeguard vulnerable people. It's the means to take cost out of supporting services, share resources and information wherever it's possible and focus resource on safeguarding and improving frontline services across the public sector.

The platform approach, and PSN as a critical trusted element, can make a real impact not just on network costs, but service delivery. We need to ai on the £674bn cost of public m higher, exploit the investment in services that industry has committed and harness the great achievements of public bodies in connecting to PSN. We must build on this platform to save billions and to make public services better and more sustainable for the future.

What's required?
The PSN platform is here now. But like any platform it's a stepping off stage; the beginning of a journey, an embarkation point rather than a destination. To accelerate the journey of reform, PSNGB makes the following recommendations:

Revitalise the market
The existing PSN Frameworks were a good start. They provide a very competitive marketplace for PSN compliant as well as non-compliant services. But the market and technology have moved on fast and we now need to enable more suppliers, large and small, to enter the market and to make it easier for providers to add new services or enter framework lots more dynamically 'in flight'. It needs to be easier to sell individual or combinations of services in the way the customer wants them and on terms that are attractive to both buyer and seller.

Standard means standard
We've invested a great deal in agreeing a common platform based on commercial good practice and standard products and services, not bespoke requirements. That's how we get costs and prices down, level the competitive playing field enabling comparison and deliver services that fit together effectively. So customers need to avoid gold plating requirements and adding to standard terms and conditions. Being 'special' costs money. Industry and the public sector have developed and agreed common standards so let's stick to them, improve them iteratively and extract the benefits, not revert to bespoke flavours.

Innovate, fail or scale
Great ideas don't always work first time. So using PSN as the platform we need to identify potential solutions to the 'wicked issues' that have faced real service delivery and test them. If they're not practical, recognise it fast and move on. If they are then scale and replicate. This means effective collaboration across the public sector and with industry - it may involve small local projects or big ideas that could reshape working practices for millions of people. PSN provides a safe environment, a trusted platform for innovation that reduces the cost and risk of experimentation. The PSN Solutions Advisory Group instigated by SOCITM is a great start; let's work together across the public sector to build on PSN.

Harden the foundations
As PSN grows and more critical applications and services depend on it, it's essential that the platform is managed in a way that is resilient and responsive. This means we need to ensure it can cope with the demand of more real-time services like voice and video collaboration and that threats to the infrastructure are appropriately identified and defended against. These are fundamental user needs we need to deliver, supporting, for example, the ability to make 'local' calls anywhere in the public sector and have confidence that the information passed across PSN is safe and secure. PSN standards aren't set in stone, they're iterative; with a strong operating foundation we can collectively develop and grow them to deliver more of what users need.

PSNGB is a trade association for organisations or individuals providing PSN services to the public sector ( )

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