Patchy uptake hinders Public Service Network roll-out

Key players involved in deploying the Public Service Network (PSN) say progress is being made, but different approaches are slowing it down

There is no question the Public Services Network (PSN) has been gaining momentum over the past 12 months. The “network of networks” to enable local services to save cash by using shared infrastructure and having better access to applications has been embraced by a number of councils.

Staffordshire, Cambridge and Lincolnshire local authorities have all reported savings in the millions – thanks to their proactive stance in rolling out PSN infrastructure – and have been praised by central government.

But all is not rosy behind closed doors. Yesterday Computer Weekly joined a roundtable discussion with representatives from all sides of the PSN process, from the County Council CIO to the technology vendor. And, although the conversation began in a positive manner, it soon became clear not everyone was doing their bit.

A large number of councils still aren’t onboard with the idea. A study from Kable claims two-thirds are still not even embarking on the projects yet so, regardless of the enthusiasm in the room for the overall project, there is a desperate need for encouragement.

Contract renewal terms hold up PSN roll-out

“What are you doing about PSN? If the answer to that question is ‘I don’t really know what it is,’ wake up,” said Patrick Clark, the head of PSN transition at the Cabinet Office. 

“I know it is difficult, especially if you have a small team, but I still think if you are really not clear what PSN is and you are a senior person in IT, certainly across government as well as fire and police, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself.”

Sara Moseley, who works for KCom alongside Dorset County Council, warned it wasn’t just organisations with their heads in the sand.

“There is a practical reason too,” she said. “It is not just about people not thinking about it, it is also about the timing of when your contract is coming up for renewal and that is holding people back.”

Clark agreed but still was unhappy with the hold-up.

“The natural way of things is that if I have a legacy contract in place until 2016, I am just not going to be interested about what to do with PSN, unless I am an advocate of it,” he said.

“Really councils are going to sit back and wait until they need to do that procurement and that is one of the things we are grappling with. For me that is not satisfactory and I am not content to say everyone will be done by 2018, because that is the last contract I see on the spreadsheet. I think we need to do something about that.”

PSN makes progress despite Whitehall intransigence

It is not just the local councils taking their time in implementing PSN though, as it became clear central government was dawdling with its own implementation.

Clark admitted only 40% of its current telecoms contracts were compliant with PSN standards and, although there was a goal to raise this to 80% in the next two years, it is hard to cast aspersions at the local level when Whitehall departments aren’t playing their part.

But Clark was still keen to point to the progress that had been made.

“For most people in here it is about their regional networks and there has been progress there, but we need to make sure that, when you have those regional networks, they can be exploited – working with police, health, central departments – that is the work that has been going on in the background over the past year.”

“Once you have got them you can start to rationalise other structures to deliver government services. But we have had to move with the PSN to a certain extent to make sure the PSN works for local government, rather than having a set way of doing it and everyone will get in line but there are very good reasons.”

Different approaches to PSN complicate roll-out

Clark’s comments highlighted an ongoing problem, that there remain issues between local and central government as to the best way to implement PSN.

Mike Kendall, managing director of the PSN project in the East Midlands, emPSN, warned the different approaches were complicating the process of moving to a PSN for those looking into it. He said the differing approaches and complexity could put people off adopting the PSN.

“We had strong support from the Cabinet Office to create this regional network, but it was about getting those across the public sector – not just the local authority – to work together,” he said. “The key thing is what I would call tension between the national and local. How do you achieve a PSN at a low pain threshold?

“If you talk to the Cabinet Office or the Government Procurement Service, of course, the national framework is the right way to go. If the councils then ask, 'What about these regional things?' they are viewed differently. It doesn’t work through on the ground.”

“The way which you can achieve PSN is with regional and national frameworks enabling councils to see a way through. I worry that at the moment they see the two separately.”

Bringing local services onto a common PSN platform

This also raised the issue of getting all local services onto the same PSN. Moseley warned that in Dorset there was a lot of discussion with the local police force, but fears remained that they would go and do their own network, rather than adopt the PSN.

“We have all of the local government sites and schools that wish to participate – but then what? It is my job now to speak to health, speak to police, the fire and rescue service about coming onto the PSN.”

“We never had a barrier in talking to them, because we have been talking to them from the beginning. The door is sort of open, but the risk of course is that if police, fire and health go to national framework rather than regional. It will essentially replicate the situation we were trying to fix by buying separately.”

Clark said there had been some progress in reassuring the police that the PSNs will fulfill their needs and thought some progress would be seen in the next couple of months, but doubts remain.

If the point of the PSN is for all the areas of local public services to work together under one umbrella with the support of central government, losing such large organisations to a separate network could damage the PSN's reputation.

“I think the picture is not as bleak as we sometimes paint it,” said Vic Falcus, who leads the PSN roll-out at Staffordshire County Council.

Falcus tried to assure the group of the collaboration between public sector organisations within a county boundary and between councils across the country.

The benefits of PSN and beyond

The PSN process is moving forward but – as with many public sector projects – at a very slow pace.

One representative from local government told Computer Weekly they thought the PSN would prove only a stepping stone, before cloud is fully embraced by government. And if this happens, all organisations will need is a good internet connection to use online applications.

But if the PSN does prove a stop-gap, more councils need to get on board faster; local and central representatives need to work harder to be cheerleaders and encourage new members; and, most importantly, the user needs to start seeing the benefits.

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