Is the Scottish Wide Area Network living up to expectation?

Written by Alan Robertson on 16 February 2016 in Feature

Scotland’s public sector assesses where things stand two years on from the SWAN contract being awarded

“We’ve got a fantastic opportunity in this country,” says Capita’s Eddie Cronie, partnership director for the Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN). “We can send out a real signal to the rest of the world in terms of how this can come together and how this can have such a meaningful impact on the people of Scotland in so many different ways.” Potential and practice, of course, are two very different things.

It’s two years this month since NHS National Services Scotland awarded the SWAN framework contract – with an estimated value of up to £325m over nine years – to Capita plc. The intention: to deliver a single public services network for use by the NHS, councils and other public sector organisations, allowing information to be shared more easily and securely. The decision soon became the subject of a court dispute, though, as BT sought to challenge the bidding process.

BT and NSS reached an agreement to end court proceedings almost 15 months ago, though the programme has been far from plain sailing since. Around 3,400 sites are now live on SWAN while the four ‘vanguard’ members has grown to 15, representing over 40 different organisations.

However, the pace of rollout has been “significantly slower than desired to date” with service delivery “inconsistent”, acknowledges Andy Robertson, NSS director of information technology.

While the latest customer satisfaction survey found 86 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the day-to-day delivery of their IT service from SWAN, only a third felt the same when it came to management of the transition. It has been “painful”, admits James Pocock, Dumfries and Galloway Council’s business solutions manager, though benefits are evident, including cost savings.

“The rollout has been very slow, the service has been poorer than expected but improving, and the target savings we think will be met, albeit later than expected,” Ron MacDonald, NSS’ head of national infrastructure services, tells delegates at Connect's annual SWAN conference.

Indeed, rollout is 11 months behind schedule in the case of the NHS, with a handful of sites unlikely to be transferred over from a legacy network for another month or so. However, bandwidth has improved and there are plans to put national apps, such as NHSScotland national video conferencing services and NHSmail, into the shared VRF – in essence, a private internet for SWAN users to share applications, services and data with other users.

Indeed, it is access to so-called ‘value added services’ over and above core connectivity that is being held up as the real opportunity here. “It has felt that the thrust so far has really been to get to that critical mass of membership and connections, and it starts to feel now like we’re just about there,” says Robertson. “You will hear us speak a lot more now about value added services and what we can start to bring to the table with innovation.”

Value added services, such as billing as a service, can be delivered through the existing framework contract with Capita, while others – including a single directory service, access to calendar functions across the public sector and a secure document transfer solution – are being sought from other suppliers as a matter of priority.

“Five years [down the line] I would like to see a sea change,” says Anne Moises, Scottish Government chief information officer.

“The value added services we’re talking about are all quite techy – that is not actually the point of the exercise. This is a personal view, not a Scottish Government view, but they’re techy because it’s quite difficult to get organisations at the business level to engage in some of this at the moment.

"They see it as a network issue, so we’ve got quite a lot more work to do to bring their mission up the stack. The digital ecosystem and the work we can build on top of the value added services is where I see the big changes happening in five years.”

Part of that cultural shift will stem from organisations becoming more comfortable about not having to own everything themselves, suggests Moises, while constrained public sector budgets at a time of heightened demand is also likely to contribute. Indeed, Pete Birrell, SEPA’s head of information services, encourages public sector organisations weighing up a move to SWAN to “try and look beyond your own individual revenue sheet and look at what is going to be good for Scotland in the months and years ahead”.

Given the effort involved in any such transition, Birrell underlines the alternative of ‘hubbing’ whereby smaller organisations can “shelter under” larger ones who have already done the “dirty work” in terms of drawing up a contract. “Despite some of the difficulties, I think the future is bright,” he says. “The future is SWAN.” 

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