Public Services > Central Government

GDS pays tribute to the elements of PSN it wants to keep

David Bicknell Published 14 March 2017

GDS intends to move away from the PSN but wants to keep its standards, community, marketplace, savings and benefits for SIROs


Government Digital Service (GDS) officials have paid tribute to the key outcomes from the Public Services Network (PSN) that they would like to keep.

GDS said recently in a blogpost that the “Internet is OK”, for the “vast majority of the work that the public sector does,” and signalled a move away from the PSN.

But at a roundtable discussion about the PSN last week organised by the network providers’ association Innopsis, GDS officials Simon Foster and Mark Harrison lauded a series of developments that arose out of the PSN.

Simon Foster, PSN Operations Manager at the Cabinet Office, told the Innopsis roundtable discussion, “There are a load of good things that we want to preserve from the Public Services Network (PSN). The first thing that we got was a set of common standards that we could agree on that was a way of describing what a network for government ought to look like.  That is extraordinary because prior to that we had hundreds of different networks all built to different standards. Coming together and agreeing what the common standards were allowed network providers across the UK to offer services to meet those standards. So a set of standards is a really important thing and that has enabled many of the other things and I don’t want to lose those because I think those are useful things.”

Foster added that in creating those standards, there was a by product, a community. “Extraordinarily,” he said, “we’ve got a community of competitors here.  We’ve got network providers who on a day to day basis are competing with each other for business. But in environments like this, they are working together for that common end. Working together to agree what those standards might be and all keeping each other honest. That’s an asset that we must remember to preserve.”

He went on. “The third thing that PSN brought to us was a marketplace . You network providers started to compete and sell services and started to improve your services, still built to the common standards. And that marketplace still exists today. We have a great marketplace for network services and it allows us to benefit from improved services over time and allows you to keep innovating as much as you can.”

The fourth element that PSN created was savings. “That marketplace generates what we all want to see in government, which is savings. You, the PSN community in this room have together generated auditable savings across government of around £100m a year for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. There aren’t many other ICT programmes in government that can say that.”

Foster was joined at the event by Mark Harrison, the newly appointed senior product owner for communications in GDS who pointed out that there was a fifth asset that had been generated through PSN: the ability for senior information risk owners (SIROs) across government to be able to make decisions to buy PSN .

Foster continued, “Also in the room is NHS Digital. And many of us in the room have been on a journey with NHS Digital, developing health and social care network standards for the replacement of N3. HSCN and NHS Digital is on the same journey that PSN has been on for this period of time. The marketplace gets opened up, standards get agreed, a community is built, and SIROs can sign things off. We made those savings and HSCN will make those savings too.”

But, Foster asked, what is going to happen next?

“There is today, across GOV.UK, across the national cyber security centre, a whole load of advice about keeping information secure on PSN, in the cloud, on applications, on your desktop. There’s an awful lot of data there about how you might want to keep control and protect information securely. But many legacy PSN services have essentially relied on the network, because it’s a network that’s not connected, not routed on the Internet.

“But there are a lot of legacy services on there,  and government is on a journey about improving its legacy ICT estate and over time those services will mature and they will become robust enough, I think, to be able to present on the Internet.”

But, he added, “We’re not there today and I think it would be foolish to suddenly today move a lot of investment into doing that because that’s just bringing cost forward where if we are more sensible about it, and just intercept departmental ICT spending schedules, and just do it at the right time, the thing becomes easier to deliver and at no additional cost.

“So we have to be aware of the timescale that we’re talking about here. I don’t know what sort of timescale we’re talking about. But I don’t see it in one year or two years. I think it’s maybe more like five years. I think this a journey that needs to be taken by departments at their own pace.”

Addressing the issue of data, Foster continued, “But there is something that makes this difficult, I think. It’s easier if you are a central government department dealing with very sensitive, top secret information. You can throw national resources at protecting that data. And it’s easy if you are dealing with data that can be shown on the Internet and it does no harm. You can just use commodity cloud services and in fact, you can even use commodity cloud services today with information which is a little bit more sensitive.

“But when I speak to information owners across government, I find that there are small amounts of information, maybe less than one or two percent, that is so sensitive but is not nationally sensitive. For example, information that is used in criminal investigations. No one wants that sort of information to be released in any circumstances and yet it’s not secret. And I think we have a gap in understanding how to protect that sort of information.

“We can protect it on PSN, but I think on public cloud, I’m not sure whether departments of government, Whitehall, quite understand how to protect it. And I think that is our challenge. And as a local authority or a central government department where I’m doing 99% of my business in that other space, I still need to handle occasional information which is going to be very sensitive, but not secret. Today, we‘re still going to have to use PSN to do that, because there’s nothing else in town.”

Foster said the challenge is to look at getting much better use out of public cloud, and much better use of different kinds of networks.

“We can still keep that SIRO on board and we can sign off those services that its organisation is buying. So I think that’s the challenge. Do we need a single network? I don’t know. We have a set of standards that talk about MPLS Layer 3 networks. We don’t have anything that talks about Layer 2.

“But there are so many stakeholders that are involved on this journey. I think it is the owners of that sensitive information that we need to bring along with us. I think it’s the National Cyber Security Centre that can help everyone define what those security controls might be. But I also think it’s this room, it’s the supplier community that can make sure that government doesn’t end up in a technological cul-de-sac and continues to innovate and offer common technology to address those different problems.”

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