The long-awaited Public Services Network (PSN) - to enable the delivery of government services from any provider or location - is now underway with the first trials, accreditation of suppliers and pre-tender framework agreement in place. But how achievable is the government's vision of a national "network of networks"?
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The PSN is intended to connect all government services. Central government is already mandated to move towards a PSN model, and Kent and Hampshire County Councils are trialling a regional network to connect with central services. Jeff Wallbank , development manager at Kent County Council, says the region started to connect its fire and police services before the borough agreed to pilot the national PSN.
"We thought it was a good idea to get involved as it allowed us to aggregate central services into single connections," he said.
Under the Government Connect Secure Extranet (GCSx) - the wide area network that allows public sector organisations to share data with central government departments, such as the National Health Service, the Criminal Justice Extranet and the Police National Network - the council had 14 different connections. By connecting through the PSN it will just have two. "That has got to be beneficial to the public purse," said Wallbank.
"We are trying to prise open and aggregate access into national services. We could have continued along our route, but we would have had two of every [connection] into the GCSx to give us resilience."
The network is not yet up and running, but Kent expects to be testing access to GCSx services at the end of this year. The council is working with Global Crossing (GC)and Virgin Media - the current telecoms providers with PSN accreditation.
"We tested whether Kent could use Hampshire's telephony system without having specific connection into Hampshire. Under normal rules, we would have had to purchase a long network link. But using the PSN we didn't have to do that and were able to access Hampshire's system using the PSN structure," said Wallbank.
The PSN is expected to deliver significant savings through the removal of duplicate network connections, simpler procurements and greater competition. It is also hoped to enable greater collaboration between organisations - important in the drive to shared services.
The architecture underlying the PSN is the Government Conveyance Network (GCN) which will interconnect networks from multiple suppliers. The GCN infrastructure is being built by BT.
Jeff Parris, senior vice president of business development at Global Crossing, says the supplier has been working with the government to put together a national set of standards for the PSN.
"We decided it was in our interest in the early days of PSN to invest time and effort in setting up the infrastructure and standards. This will also open up the market more from the current incumbents," he said. The company has more PSN work in the pipeline, he adds.
PSN contracts will be awarded by February 2012 under a framework agreement, which could be worth up to £2bn for just two years. A further group of public sector organisations will be trialing PSN including Essex, councils in south Yorkshire and London.
But Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca, says there are still unclear aspects as to how the PSN will be built, who will work on it and whether it will fit into the "too big to succeed" bracket of large-scale public sector IT projects.
"There are so many challenges that come with building a project of this size - typically they tend to be over budget, over time, and under delivered. It's far better that projects happen incrementally," he said.
A regional approach to building up the PSN could be possible, he says. "This needs to be allowed to evolve rather than for the whole thing to be planned. Some regional authorities are more advanced, with others lacking in the same IT skills and resources. Perhaps some regions can learn from others in terms of efficient deployment. There's nothing wrong with a multi-phased approach. Some of the pull will have to come from regional councils and if there is more pull from them that might move things on more quickly," he said.
Chris Pope, ICT head at Newham Council has reservations about the national PSN. "There has been talk about a PSN for a long time but nothing has yet been delivered. I still haven't seen any tangible outcomes to demonstrate when it is going to be usable," he said.
Pope helped to create a regional PSN in his previous IT role in Merton - "In the absence of a clear government plan around a national PSN," he said. This enabled shared HR services between Sutton and Merton to operate and shared legal services between Richmond and Merton, as well as acting as a foundation for its involvement in a five-borough shared services move.
Newham is also deploying a PSN to provide more connectivity between the various boroughs of East London with the increasing move to shared services.
Pope's concern is that the national PSN lacks a clear strategy: "The process still seems very opaque at the moment."
However, he does agree with Kent's Wallbank that there are opportunities to save money by connecting to central services. "For example, we get information for a number of purposes on different networks to the DVLA [Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency]. There must be efficiencies to be made by reducing these connections," he said.
Many local authorities appear to be ahead of the government when it comes to deploying PSNs, as they seek to create platforms which enable shared services and consequently drive through cost savings. Local authorities will have to fund PSNs themselves as they transition from their existing contractual agreements with service providers. For this reason alone the idea of a "network of networks" is unlikely to materialise soon, as PSN deployment will vary widely from borough to borough.
So as the government's national PSN project remains in its nascent stages, it seems likely that for the moment the majority of local authorities will be concentrating on creating regional networks, rather than their involvement in a national PSN.
The Public Services network in pictures: