Creation of a shared information and communications technology network for public bodies has been a dream for some time as politicians continue to urge greater efficiency in public services, writes Dan Jellinek
A Government Secure Intranet began development as far back as 1996, but differences in how public bodies connected to it meant its scope was limited.
Over the past two years it has been replaced by the Public Services Network (PSN), a more flexible “network of networks”, with multiple suppliers interconnecting using agreed standards.
“Although we had the Government Secure Intranet in the centre, individual organisations had all gone out to procure to their own standards and this meant, when you tried to share information across boundaries, there were an awful lot of issues to overcome separately each time,” says John Stubley, PSN authority director in the Cabinet Office.
With PSN, bodies connect through a range of approved providers, but all share the same standards. Common or “federated’” identity management is being built, which will mean that someone logging securely on to one part of a PSN environment can access the other parts.
The Government Digital Service is now overseeing the connection of some 600 public sector sites on to PSN-connected networks, including all local authorities and criminal justice agencies by the end of this year, and most key government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, and the Department for Work and Pensions, within two years.
“Now they are all using the same standards, so the inter-operability problem goes away,” says Mr Stubley. “When you create a service, rather than creating six or seven or 100 different boundary issues to go through, you do it once. The service sits somewhere in the PSN environment and it can be shared by everyone.”
This makes it easier to run projects cutting across many partners, he says, such as the current overhaul of the electoral registration system in England and Wales, which is validating information from all local authorities.
Someone logging securely on to one part of a Public Services Network environment will be able to access the other parts
Access to secure cloud services through the public sector’s own G-Cloud framework is another piece of the efficiency puzzle, with CloudStore offering goods and services from multiple suppliers.
Most early cross-sector initiatives using PSN and G-Cloud have been initiated by county councils including Hampshire, Kent, Staffordshire and Norfolk.
In Norfolk, the county is using PSN and cloud services to create a cloud-based “information hub” to encourage multi-agency working.
A £26.5-million contract with HP, Microsoft, Vodafone and 50 smaller firms includes cloud-based virtualisation of the council’s datacentre and 4G mobile connections. But it is the collaboration infrastructure based on PSN standards, to be shared with district councils, health bodies and other public services, using identity federation for security, that is breaking new ground.
At a meeting earlier this month, 14 Norfolk public sector agency chief executives discussed using the platform to integrate services, including community care for older people and interventions with troubled families.
“We’ve got a set of public sector leaders in Norfolk who understand we all need to work together,” says Tom Baker, chief information officer at Norfolk County Council. “We realise we are all part of a care pathway in social services, education and the NHS, and the people charged with delivering care must not be hampered by lack of access to data.”
The project is also developing new information services aimed at service users, such as a mobile app being built by developers at Norfolk and HP who visited the homes of families in Great Yarmouth to gauge their needs and test ideas.
The prototype app shows users where there are nearby facilities, such as social clubs, allows them to build profiles, action plans and journals, and reminds them of appointments. But, with the necessary consents, it also feeds data back into the information hub so care staff can track what is going on.
“It works 24/7, so this is a huge new opportunity to capture information from people in a setting comfortable to them. Intervention is difficult in times of austerity, so it’s a fascinating chance to predict and forecast, to build a smarter community,” says Mr Baker.
The app was developed in two weeks using “agile” techniques, he says, highlighting another current weapon in public bodies’ armouries as they strive for greater efficiency.
Often used for software and app development, but also applicable to the development of business processes, agile refers to a group of management techniques that prioritise the quick building and testing of prototypes in a continuous feedback loop.
“Agile methods prioritise what will give users the most value, differentiating the ‘would like to haves’ from the core business needs,” says Stephen Messenger, chairman of the Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) Consortium, an agile standards body.
Methods such as DSDM rigidly “time box” each development stage in an attempt to prevent a frequent past pitfall of public sector IT projects – overrunning time and budgets.
“If you follow agile philosophy properly, you cannot overrun because the time box cannot vary,” Mr Messenger says. “It is also incremental and iterative, so you are not going too far before you are getting feedback on what you have done. If you go six months and show it to the customer and they say, ‘That’s not what I meant’, you have wasted a lot of resources. In six months the business environment may have changed as well, so the solution is no longer valid. But if you prototype in two weeks, there is not too much time to go down blind alleys.”
However, an “agile” mindset may not always come easy to public sector managers. Mr Messenger observes: “In big organisations, you may have governance that says you have to do this, you have to do that. This mentality has to change.”