The Public Services Network is the start of a journey which, if planned well, will transform the way the public sector works
By Tom Kelly
Director, Public Sector Scotland, BT Global Services
It may sound counterintuitive, but one way to encourage innovation and progress is to get everyone doing the same thing.
Take the railways, for example. When Brunel and others started laying tracks across Britain, they used an array of different gauges. It didn’t matter much until networks started to join up. At that point, it became a real nuisance. To get from A on one network to B on another, passengers and goods had to change trains. It slowed things down and it made travel more expensive.
So what was the answer? The rail industry needed to adopt a standard gauge. The change couldn’t be made overnight – it took almost 30 years to convert Brunel’s masterpiece, the Great Western Railway – but it was worth it. Journey times fell. Costs were cut. The idea of through trains proved quite revolutionary at the time.
Fast forward to 2012, and it is public services that are being held back by their use of different ‘gauges’. I’m not talking about the spacing between rails, of course, but about differences in the design and procurement of voice and data networks. This technology infrastructure may well have met the requirements of individual organisations or services for which it was bought, but increasingly as the providers and users of these services have demanded more seamless services, it has lacked the equivalent of the single gauge.
The answer? As before, to adopt a standard – and in Westminster, this is exactly what the Cabinet Offi ce is doing with the Public Services Network programme (PSN). BT has long supported the argument that the public sector can benefit from a more joinedup approach to government – one that breaks down barriers between different agencies and authorities. The PSN is a major step towards that goal. By making it easier for public-sector organisations to buy and connect ICT networks and share services, it will create opportunities that haven’t existed before – in terms of collaboration and efficiency savings.
By 2014, Westminster central government departments alone could be saving up to £130m a year because of the PSN. This is of equal relevance in Scotland where the recent McClelland report identified at least 140 public sector networks and more than 120 separate data centres. Creating a Scottish public services network could help rationalise these and make sure that ICT systems no longer act as a barrier to sharing services and information – saving considerable sums of public money in the process. McClelland estimated that improving ICT procurement and adopting a more joined-up approach to ICT could create savings of £870m over fi ve years.
The PSN programme has been in gestation since 2007 and is the result of a unique collaboration between government and industry. From its inception it has been articulated in terms of its benefi ts: the potential to make substantial savings and drive secure interoperability. These were key unifying themes for the public sector in 2007 and are even more so now.
Indeed, research recently commissioned by BT reveals widespread optimism towards the programme – with many public servants considering it crucial to their organisation’s effi ciency drive. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of public servants who consider themselves well informed about the PSN regard its adoption to be important or very important to their organisation’s effi ciency programme.
The research also reveals that there are many others in the public sector who are less clear about what the PSN is and what it can enable, or even where their organisation stands in adopting it. This reinforces the recent recommendation from the Westminster Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee, backed by the Westminster Government, that more needs to be done to make sure knowledge about how modern information systems and technology can be used to improve public services is shared effectively across professional groups within the civil services and not restricted to the IT crowd.1
There has been rapid progress over the past year in this important area of public sector service development, and 2012 looks set to be the ‘year of the Public Services Network’. In the spring the Westminster Government Procurement Service is due to let two framework contracts for PSN services, creating a single shop window for PSN certifi ed voice and data services.
Across the public sector, the transition to PSN has started, with many organisations already developing plans to become compliant. While this is undoubtedly important they must also look beyond this to what the PSN will ultimately enable for their organisation – in other words, what innovation follows certifi cation and the interoperability it delivers. For example, how services such as data centres or applications can be shared or how public service workers can work more flexibly and securely from different locations.
The BT research found that many public servants underestimate the role that the PSN can play as a platform for innovation but unless they start to take this view, the PSN risks being seen just as centralised procurement rather than also an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how public services operate and deliver.
So my advice to public sector decision makers is simple: embrace the concept of the PSN because it is a great opportunity, but seize it on your own terms. Think carefully about what you want to achieve and plot the best roadmap for getting there. The PSN is so much more than a tick in the box or a moment in time – it is the start of a journey, which if planned well, will transform the way the public sector can work.
BT is playing a leading role in making a public services network a reality. We’re committed to helping the governments in Holyrood and Westminster, alongside defence, health, blue light and local government, to prepare for PSN and the transformational benefi ts it will enable.
Our recent PSN research gives us an invaluable insight into how our customers and stakeholders are feeling right now, so we’ll be using it to help us evolve our approach and make sure we deliver precisely to meet their needs.
A railway is also only as good as its reach and the same is true of ICT infrastructures. Hand-in-hand with standardisation, the roll-out of super-fast broadband across the UK is critical to the development of a joined-up public sector infrastructure. Wider availability of higher bandwidth connections will enable public services to be delivered in new ways – for example, remote access to new educational resources, or the deployment of telecare initiatives. A public sector joined up by a public services network will be ideally placed to exploit these opportunities, increasing public sector productivity, improving services to citizens and boosting economic growth.
BT is committed to making this vision a reality through the investment it is making in next generation broadband networks for Scotland. Work is already under way on upgrading exchanges to offer faster broadband over copper lines, at speeds of up to 20Mbps. By summer 2012, around 1.5 million Scottish homes and businesses will be served by an upgraded exchange – equal to around 72 per cent of all premises. BT has also announced plans to bring super-fast, fi bre broadband within the reach of more than 685,500 Scottish homes and businesses, ultimately offering a range of super-fast download speeds up to 300Mbps within the next two years.
In its response to the recent Christie Commission report on public sector reform in Scotland, the Scottish Government emphasised its commitment to the creation of integrated local services driven by better partnership, collaboration and effective local delivery. I believe that there has never been a better time to make this vision a reality.
The development of a public services network standard, together with the growing availability of high speed connectivity, can provide the public sector with the tools to create a platform for public sector transformation – a transformation that will improve outcomes for people and communities across Scotland.
1Source: Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs”: time for a new approach: Further Report, With the Government Response to the Committee’s Twelfth Report of Session 2010-12. 26 January 2012.