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Next steps for the Public Service Network
Source: guardian.co.uk
Source Date: Monday, October 17, 2011
Focus: ICT for MDGs
Country: Europe
Created: Oct 17, 2011

The Public Service Network (PSN) is now past the point where a big plan comes to fruition. A handful of companies have signed deeds of undertaking for places on its core Government Conveyance Network infrastructure, tests have been completed and certification granted for various services, and the Cabinet Office has launched the first procurements for PSN-compliant services.

There's no doubt that the public sector beyond Whitehall is highly aware of its potential – a few local authorities, especially counties, have their own PSNs in place, and there has been a surge of tenders for networks that have to be compliant with the national service. But it can't be taken for granted that local authorities, healthcare bodies or blue light services will rush to make use of the PSN, and the Cabinet Office has begun to work on bringing them into the "network of networks".

John Stubley, who led the programme until recently, and in his new role as the lead for security in the ICT strategy is still providing an input, explained this would be a big step towards more collaboration between central and local government. Speaking last week at a round table on the subject organised by communications company Kcom, he said one benefit could be the sharing of facilities.

"Should the DWP support networks for all of its Jobcentre Plus centres?" he said. "There's no point in this, and maybe the next step is getting things like this to change.

"Some central government organisations are beginning to look to make use of local networks to implement regional facilities, but it will not change overnight."

It's the pace of change that is now the concern of his colleague Patrick Clarke, who is the lead on the transition to PSN for organisations outside of central government. He said there has been a lot of work over the past year or so on supporting regional networks, and the Cabinet Office is now working on a road map which central government and the rest of the public sector can follow in getting access to the PSN.

It will be running a series of regional events from November, informing people of the procurement routes and how the frameworks will work, and asking for their questions and obtaining feedback on the business issues.

He said: "There's a strategy of bringing those who don't know much about it up to speed; supporting those who have made the decision with answers to the questions about issues like security and network architecture; and pressing central government departments to articulate their plans for the PSN. The last point will help local government to learn what needs to be done."

There are plenty of signs of enthusiasm in local government for the transition, but there are concerns in some quarters that NHS organisations have little immediate incentive to hook up with the PSN, due partly to the presence of their own N3 network and partly due to a highly cautious attitude towards data sharing.

Clarke said that some are beginning to take it seriously, that Katie Davis, the director general of NHS informatics, is "right onboard" the programme, and a joint working group is developing a road map to support this. But it will take time to bring results.

"At the moment we're going to health organisations and they need a steer from the centre. We're not there yet, but will be soon," Clarke said.

"We're trying to get N3 services available over the PSN, and we have a technical model for how it might work." He added that the Cabinet Office is also working on a model for providing information assurance when data is shared over the network; and while it believes it has one, there is a need for it to be stress-tested.

In addition, the National Policing Improvement Agency has set up a project to lay the ground for police forces to use the PSN, and it is hoped that the Police National Network will connect to it by March 2013. Clarke suggested that forces with contracts for their individual networks that are due to expire soon may want to ensure they are PSN-compliant, especially if they can see the advantages of working more closely with local government.

Underlying the more cautious attitudes are questions about information security, and worries that some local government networks operate primarily for information rated at IL2, while other organisations deal largely with the more sensitive IL3 and IL4 material. Stubley said that networks within the PSN need to be able to move IL4 traffic.

"We need to address that, and there are meetings with CESG taking place and the capabilities to do it. But there is need to put a policy out there to say 'This is how it is done' and to win hearts and minds.

"Security has been used as an excuse for not doing things, and my challenge is to change it from being a stopper to being an enabler."

Clarke summed up the priorities by expressing a need to provide standards to ensure that any decision on using the PSN is not constrained by boundaries or security requirements, but only on the best way of doing so.

Stubley suggested the mark of success will be when the procurement mechanism for PSN services meets everyone's concerns.

"Where you want to get to is a single set of frameworks that everyone can buy from," he said. "It's a long term intention and we're not there yet."

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