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PSN – where next?

04 August, 2014

The trail-blazing efforts of a number of organisations should not be understated – but the true potential of PSN is yet to be fulfilled, writes Neil Mellor, director of the trade association for PSN suppliers and buyers, PSNGB.

Government has achieved a unique and powerful thing with the Public Services Network (PSN). Instead of spending billions building a new network, it has worked iteratively with industry to define how things should work and agreed common standards, based on commercial good practice. Rather than replace networks, it has connected them, creating a platform for reform, for a step-change in efficiency and service improvement.

Our members – organisations that provide PSN compliant network and communication services - have invested in and adopted those common standards and government customers have also conformed to them. So now, when a department, local authority or fire service buys a new service, if its PSN compliant it’ll work with compliant services from other competing suppliers and it can connect with other parts of the public sector that are also on PSN. As importantly, the PSN platform comes with agreed levels of service, integrity and a built-in level of security that’s appropriate for most public sector business.

With nearly all major departments and local authorities connected and pioneering blue-light organisations, such as Thames Valley, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex Police, South West Fire and Rescue Service, Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service and East Coast & Hertfordshire Control Room Consortium (ECHCRC) previously announcing the creation of PSN-compliant networks, PSN is a great achievement by all involved. 

PSN potential

The trail-blazing efforts of these and other organisations should not be understated; the potential of PSN is great. Often, co-ordinated local response is the key to handling emergencies or major incidents, whether floods, road accidents, fires or industrial accidents.  Many emergency calls require several responders, from Police, Fire and Ambulance services to the Coastguard or other rescue and response services. Today, the lead responder receiving the initial call from a distressed member of the public, often the police or ambulance services, typically relays the incident details to other control rooms via the phone.  This takes time and introduces the possibility of human error through miscommunication and further re-keying.  And as an incident unfolds with complex layers of often sensitive information from different sources, it becomes impossible to keep all responders fully in the picture though traditional phone, fax or even email communications.

Effective, timely, appropriate and resilient communication between all parties responding to a major incident is, therefore, vital.  A fundamental requirement is fast and reliable information exchange without the need for intervention that gets the right information to the right people at the right time, wherever they are, enabling them to take appropriate and measured action.

Currently, whilst there are some local interfaces there is a lack of standardisation, and the existing technology available isn’t always being exploited as effectively as it could be.  Some Command and Control or mobilisation systems can already talk to each other, for example, but with no global standards it’s expensive and bespoke. 

There are some encouraging signs of progress on this though, with the Cabinet Office developing standards for Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT).  The MAIT protocol enables interoperability between different systems, meaning that control rooms and call handling centres can exchange information quickly and reliably, saving time and providing a clear understanding of the assistance required to resolve an incident. The principle of MAIT works well, but what’s needed is a trusted, assured and resilient connectivity platform over which the service can be delivered. 

This is where PSN comes in. As a resilient and assured multi-supplier network - capable also of carrying more sensitive protected information securely - PSN removes the need for new connectivity; taking the costs of dedicated networks and encryption out of the equation.

In addition to being the conduit for communication and collaboration, PSN can have services hung on it, available to all its members with agreed standards of assurance, resilience, availability and service built in.  These common standards keep costs down and the established and open marketplace of competing service providers ensures prices are keen as well as building in resilience.  PSN services can also be accessed remotely in the field using appropriately managed devices, meaning that incident responders could be in touch wherever they’re working and that the latest information is directed straight to people on the front line.  And if, in the worst case, the local command and control centre is disabled by flood or another incident, then PSN could connect people to a backup centre anywhere in the country, bringing national resources to bear on local problems.

So PSN can provide the foundation for suppliers to deliver services that enable multiple agencies to transfer information securely, managing major incidents more effectively and averting crises.  MAIT services could be pre-connected through PSN to those organisations needing to exchange information; services they could potentially buy though the G-Cloud framework and Government CloudStore without upfront build costs or the need for costly and lengthy procurement. 

What next?

You would be forgiven for assuming that with central and local government signed up and blue-light services complying with PSN fast, the work is done. The PSN platform is here now. But like any platform it’s a stepping ‘off stage’; the beginning of a journey, an embarkation point rather than a destination. In the next few months we’ll be working with our members and Government to foster some essential changes, and help maximize the benefits of PSN:

· Revitalise the market. The existing PSN Frameworks were a good start; they provide a very competitive marketplace for PSN compliant as well as non-compliant services. But the market and technology have moved on fast and we now need to enable more suppliers, large and small, to enter the market and to make it easier for all providers to add new services.  It needs to be easier to sell individual or combinations of services in the way that you, the customer wants them and on terms that are attractive to both buyer and seller.

· Standard means standard. We’ve invested a great deal in agreeing a common platform based on commercial good practice and standard products and services, not bespoke requirements.  That’s how we get costs and prices down, level the competitive playing field enabling comparison and deliver services that fit together effectively.  So customers – fire services, local government and central - need to avoid gold plating requirements and adding to standard terms and conditions.  Being ‘special’ costs money.  Industry and the public sector have developed and agreed common standards so let’s stick to them, improve them iteratively and extract the benefits, not revert to bespoke flavours.

· Innovate, fail or scale. Great ideas don’t always work first time.  So using PSN as the platform we need to identify potential solutions to the ‘wicked issues’ that have faced real service delivery and test them.  If they’re not practical, recognise it fast and move on.  If they are then scale and replicate.  This means effective collaboration across the public sector and with industry – it may involve small local projects or big ideas that could reshape working practices for millions of people. PSN provides a safe environment, a trusted platform for innovation that reduces the cost and risk of experimentation.

· Harden the foundations. As PSN grows and more critical applications and services depend on it, it’s essential that the platform is managed in a way that is resilient and responsive.  This means we need to ensure it can cope with the demand of more real-time services like voice and video collaboration and that threats to the infrastructure are appropriately identified and defended against. PSN standards aren’t set in stone, they’re iterative; with a strong operating foundation we can collectively deliver more of what users need. 

Still unsure what the PSN is? See this video:

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