Kcom’s Howard Inns takes a closer look at the public sector network and debates the government strategy in realising this worthy vision.
Think about big networks, not necessarily those related to IT or computing, but postal networks and rail networks. Do they work better when built and run by a single organisation or do customers get a better service if multiple supplier organisations collaborate? The answer to that question may depends on your political perspective and will also be influenced by the fact that many such ‘networks’ started life as a monopoly. The polar opposite of this perspective is the internet, the biggest network in the world built by an almost unlimited number of organisations and founded on standards which develop rapidly and organically rather than being specified by ‘the centre’ (remember the International Standards Organisations attempts to build communications standards based on their 7 layer OSI Reference Model?). And guess what it works – no I mean it really works!
UK Government, in their visionary concept of the Public Sector Network (the number one underpinning strand of the Government ICT Strategy) is attempting to tread a difficult middle ground. The concept is great, any Public Sector body can plug in anywhere and be assured of secure communications with their other offices in other locations or indeed any other public sector body. Not only can they communicate, they can also have access to the other resources available via the PSN such as video conferencing, access to the G-Cloud and Government Applications Store).
How is the PSN being developed?
The methodology by which the Cabinet Office through the CIO Council aim to achieve this is very sound, in that multiple service and technology providers will be involved in setting the PSN ‘standards’ that will enable the vision. Organisations involved in the various work-streams currently developing the standards (which incidentally will use, wherever possible, many of the existing RFCs which underpin the internet) are asked to ‘leave their brand at the door’. Suppliers will then be invited, through competitively tendered framework agreements, to be one of the chosen PSN suppliers.
Core to this collaborative process are the service providers whose networks will be used to provide carrier transport for the PSN (the Direct Network Service Providers or DNSPs) and these are currently being chosen through the a Framework Agreement procurement – the Managed Telecommunications Convergence Framework or MTCF. The DNSPs will also have a key stake-holding in building the network standards, along with the technology providers who manufacture carrier grade equipment. The DNSPs will also be responsible, through a Deed of Undertaking, for building the critical interconnect network that manages the links between the DNSP networks and indeed any other existing or new network (such as the county based Public Sector Networks in Kent and Hampshire). This is referred to as the Government Conveyance Network or GCN.
The step after this, anticipated to start in summer 2010 and running in parallel to the ongoing work to establish the PSN standards, will be to let Framework Agreements for a range of, firstly, national and secondly local or specialist service providers to sell their services over the PSN – things like IP Telephony, Video Services or Managed Services. The idea is that by 2011 the stage will be set for all public sector network requirements to be met by the PSN through the organisations who have won places on the various Frameworks Agreements.
All is good then?
Here we have a far sighted vision (the potential to achieve big, shared services style savings as it will take away the need for each public sector body to build its own network) and a roadmap to achieving it through expert collaboration and a dynamic approach to standards setting – using the knowledge of the internet and the experience of service providers in building 21st Century Networks.
There is a but …
Surely this vision of a dynamic and fast changing network resource and the imperative of providing best value to Public Sector needs to take advantage of the dynamism of the changing communications marketplace to with which it is intimately entwined? New market entrants and new technologies have a massive amount to contribute and must be invited in. However they want a financial return if they are to make the (often considerable) investment in being involved. Yet, once the PSN is established the only route to any revenue for any of the participants is through Framework Agreements – the procurement route that strikes fear in the heart of many suppliers (and many customers!). These procurement instruments came to prominence because they enable catalogue style procurement from ‘approved’ suppliers. Attractive to the procurement manager because they were safe, acceptable to all, had some assurance of best value and avoided the painful and time consuming process of going to the open market. For suppliers they are a challenge. Bidding for a framework is a big investment and is a win or lose process. If you lose, even by one point, there is no way to ‘get on’ later and you are effectively excluded from the market for the duration of the contract.
The reaction of unsuccessful suppliers can be to spend considerable energy persuading customers to use alternative procurement routes or developing sub-contract relationships with successful framework suppliers, thus adding unnecessary margin in the supply chain which gets funded from the public purse. Framework Agreements are confusing for customers as the number of agreements, vastly expanded by the number of lots on each, both overlap and leave gaps so customer can find it very difficult to find the right one for their requirement and even then, the organisations they may wish to respond may not have won places on the framework lot they select.
The current intention is to use Framework Agreements for PSN services. Surely this style of procurement is in conflict with the dynamic, technically complex and innovative world the PSN aims to open up to UK Public Sector. This initiative is closely linked to the Operational Efficiency Programme which aims to cut government spending through business process changes – in the main enabled by technology. Surely this needs a much more open procurement environment for value judgements to be made by public sector bodies? It is unlikely to be facilitated by more, confusing Framework Agreements.
Let us know your views on Framework Agreements – Useful? Confusing? Do they help or hinder your procurements?The Public Sector Network – best way to buy?