Public Services > Central Government

Users, vendors and GDS consider life after PSN

David Bicknell Published 20 March 2017

The need for collaboration, standards, appropriate security, barriers to entry and software defined networking were key issues discussed at the recent Innopsis event

After Government Digital Service (GDS) officials paid tribute to the key outcomes from the Public Services Network (PSN) that they would like to keep – common standards, a community, marketplace, savings and comfort for senior information risk owners making PSN buying decisions – last week’s roundtable also considered what the future for PSN-similar services would look like.

Asked whether attendees believed there was still a need for centralised guidance or control over network standards, around 90% of the audience believed there was.

One response was, “Those standards were put in place for a good reason, to implement interoperability. In the new world of networking over the Internet, there are about seven or eight different approaches. We don’t want to go back to a world where there are all these different approaches taking place with added complexity, less competition because you’ve got less economies of scale. Absolutely we need to do it (i.e. have centralised control).”

The Internet is OK

The publication of a recent GDS blog , entitled ‘The Internet is OK’, was raised by some attendees and justified by GDS attendees, Simon Foster, PSN Operations Manager at the Cabinet Office, Simon Foster and senior product owner for communications, Mark Harrison.

Foster said, “I think I would interpret ‘Let’s just use the Internet’ as ‘Let’s just use the public cloud’ because I think there is a difference. It’s quite subtle, because when you say the Internet to people, they think about your data being somewhat exposed to malicious actors.”

Harrison added, “In terms of the blog post that went up a few weeks ago, perhaps a more nuanced position might be that the Internet is more OK than many government SIROs would hitherto have been led to believe.”

He went on, “There were two words in Simon’s presentation that should be borne in mind. One of those was community and the other was journey.

“We’ve heard one view that centralisation of standards is a really powerful thing that can develop a number of benefits. While I’m concerned about the benefit to the taxpayer, to get a lot more and spend a lot less, as luck would have it I work in technology, and that’s something the industry has been very good at doing over the decades. This PSN community is a really powerful thing for us to take forward irrespective of what technology we will find ourselves using in five to ten years.

“The Internet is OK for a lot more than some SIROs have previously believed, but standards and consistency of approach is a powerful tool in helping to deliver taxpayer benefit.”

The roundtable event also heard from the Crown Commercial Service, whose commercial director for networks, Ieuan Trigger, commented on a question about the future of the Network Services framework, RM1045, which replaced the previous PSN Services and PSN Connectivity frameworks in August 2015.

Trigger said, “In terms of where we’re going, first of all the key thing is we’re looking to keep the existing agreement in place for a couple of years longer, whilst working with GDS to put in place something that will meet the new standards and those required in the future. So it’s a question of ensuring that we match what is coming out of sessions like this for the marketplace and putting those agreements in place at that point. That’s where we are at the moment.”


Innopsis chair Phil Gibson focused on the need to retain the strong collaboration that existed in developing PSN.

He said, “One of the best things about PSN was the huge level of collaboration that went on between industry and the Cabinet Office where all parties realised that they needed to understand the capability but also that user need. This (event) for Innopsis was very important in getting everyone in the room to get a discussion going. But a lot of people in the industry feel that they’re greatly excluded from the wider discussion about the way forward. Companies need to develop their public sector marketing and product strategies and think about the question: do you want to stay in the public sector? Maybe we need to be a bit more joined up, a bit more consultative between industry and central government.”

Putting over the GDS view, Foster said, “GDS is a cloud first organisation. And so the effort that GDS has put into ICT has really been around making that happen, cloud-first. I think it is reasonable to say it may have put less effort into developing its network strategy up until this point. This is a great opportunity to really pick out why we’re doing a network strategy and develop it because of this important data that needs to be carried around for health, social care and law enforcement in ways that, as we’ve already observed, the technology that PSN is built on, is starting to look a bit long in the tooth.”

Contrasting PSN and the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), Foster continued, “Many of you will know that I was involved in developing HSCN network obligations and standards. The reason I was there was to make sure that PSN and HSCN didn’t diverge unnecessarily because essentially they were solving fairly similar problems. The problems are different though because the philosophies are quite different between PSN and HSCN. You need to remember that. PSN doesn’t really care about the data: it cares about the network infrastructure, whereas HSCN and NHS Digital are really about the data sharing agreement and the infrastructure on which that sits.

“And that makes a huge difference in terms of the overall sets of standards that you end up requiring. We recognise that and NHS Digital colleagues in the room will I’m sure confirm that. But following that activity there’s now quite a strong relationship between NHS Digital and the PSN team in GDS. They are two different sovereign entities and make their own decisions but we are making our decisions together and we have a programme of looking for alignment going forwards.”


One question from the floor asked, “Are we thinking then that the future of a public sector networks strategy is going to be more along the lines of the NHS HSCN model where security is at the application rather than at the network layer?”

The government response was, ”Yes. In other words, don’t place trust in the network, have your security at the application layer. And that allows you to look for the network of choice. That is absolutely the guiding principle that we’re following.”

GDS’ Harrison added, “The idea that all data should be encrypted at the application layer within transit is, let’s be honest, a destination. It’s a target but not a reality today.”

Putting over the PSN user view, Jeff Wallbank, head of the Kent Public Services Network (KPSN) considered the role of the wide area network (WAN) going forwards. He said, “We’ve spoken in the past and we still continue to speak about the public sector network as the WAN. Is the next opportunity to actually move it into the building?

“We’ve heard mentions of one public estate and moves to make access through public buildings a lot easier. Surely if we can move from the WAN in one public sector network into talking about LAN technologies as well, that’s the next iteration or direction we should be moving in. It makes life a lot easier for public sector staff to move around, work, share and trust to deliver a better service for citizens.”

Also discussing the future of the WAN, Keith Smith, business development manager for Virgin Media Business said, “Why have a WAN at all? There are lots of good reasons and I’m going to break them down into two distinct categories. The first one is a set of technological capabilities, a set of performance characteristics that make the infrastructure you’ve already got more effective, usable and better.

“The second issue around why we have a WAN at all is to do with service characteristics. These are the SLAs, the service level guarantees, the resilience model, and the security status.  WANs in my view are here to stay. It’s the technology that we can change. It’s the technology that we can innovate with.”

HSCN standards

Discussing HSCN standards, Michael Bowyer, director at Innopsis, focused on the need for users to have the most appropriate network for their needs, while keeping it simple, cost effective and secure.

“What is most appropriate for them in terms of their security requirements?” he asked. “The latest (GDS) blog doesn’t say the Internet is perfect for everything. It’s actually telling you that the Internet’s here and Cloud is here. So whatever type of connectivity you’ve got, you should be able to use it, provided it meets the customer requirements.”

He went on, “I’m not going to knock PSN because I was part of the programme that started it in the first place. It’s really important that we make it clear that PSN will remain appropriate for many many years to come. There are contracts out there where the customer has actually signed up to a PSN service for another eight or nine years. So, the reality is that PSN will be part of the fabric for public sector networks for some time. How do we make that eventually into a range of other networks and how do we proscribe standards across all of that user requirement and make sure that whether we are on the HCSN network or the PSN network or using the Internet or a 4G connection users are able to connect their service and be reasonably assured based on what’s being sent over that network.”

Software defined networks

Discussing the development of software defined networking (SDN), Bowyer continued, “SDN was a twinkle in the eye about two and a half years ago. But there are claims that by 2019 about 30% more enterprises will be SDN based from the 1% there is today. It’s happening and public sector needs to embrace it. It needs to ensure the contracts, the standards and the security supports suppliers that want to implement this technology.”

Some attendees believe the technical architecture of PSN and the standards behind it may have meant the number of suppliers involved was more limited than it might have been.

One questioner asked, “Has PSN, because of its prescriptive nature and because of the standards and definitions, limited the market to new or agile entrants and restricted some of the technology choices?”

Ian Fishwick, commercial director at Innopsis, suggested, “I would argue that you can only declare PSN a partial success. At the end of the day, if you end up with a marketplace that has four or five suppliers, that cannot be a complete success. And if you end up with a solution where PSN connectivity is substantially more expensive than commercial connectivity, then again, that can only be a partial success.

“So the key lessons for me are that first of all you need standards, but those standards have to be technology independent. The reason why we’ve only had four or five competitors was that there were significant barriers to entry. We must be very clear about identifying these and removing them wherever we can. Those to me are the biggest lessons from PSN.”

Looking ahead and summing up what GDS is looking for, Mark Harrison said, “We are looking for the views of industry to try and work out how we can build the next generation of networks for government in a way that doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater in terms of standards, community, marketplace, savings, and SIRO acceptance. But perhaps not be as restrictive and (instead) more open to newer technologies as they come, when they can deliver those five benefits.

“So it’s certainly not ‘technology geek, technology for technology’s use sake toys’. That would be a bad reason to accept software defined networks but (rather) because they do these things well.”

Summing up the day, Innopsis chair Phil Gibson said, “There are around 80 people in the room that understand PSN and have an interest in what happens next. All but a few of you have said that we need to retain the principles of PSN but update the standards and technology on which it is built.”

“We have a great example of how we can do this in HSCN. That was a close working relationship between NHS Digital and industry, facilitated by Innopsis, to deliver a framework that met those user needs using commercially available industry standards.”

“Maybe over the last couple of years government and industry haven’t worked together as well as we could have, on looking at the future of public sector networks.  This has been a great start and we now need to agree how we keep up the dialogue from today and further this discussion with a few specific action plans.”

The event concluded with nodding heads on both sides indicating that there would be further dialogue.

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