It’s a fact of life that things go in and out of fashion, and it certainly makes life more interesting. But when it comes to the very architecture of public sector ICT solutions, the impact can be significant. It may seem flippant to refer to it as fashion (particularly as it’s a bit more significant than the controversy of socks with sandals), but what I’m alluding to here is the shift in attitude to enabling architectures such as those involving the Public Services Network (PSN) and those involving the ‘tower model’ of structuring an ICT strategy.
Of course there are natural rhythms in ICT – the age old swing of the pendulum between centralised and distributed solutions or the current debate between hosted or on-premise solutions. These tend to be driven by the justifiable reasons of cost and resource management, with decisions made by a single organisation supported by a fairly simple supply chain. One of the chunkier issues that still attracts a considerable amount of debate is that of in-sourced or out-sourced ICT supply.
Several statements have been made by the Government Digital Service, (who are doing a great job of championing a ‘let’s just get this stuff done’ approach when it comes to making more public sector services digitally accessible) which cast doubt on the validity of the tower approach to designing an overall ICT strategy. Traditionally considered as the way to go for organisations looking to dismantle a single supplier ICT outsource, the tower model is based on the notion that ICT is divided up into technology towers – for example end user devices, network and communications, applications and data centre – each of which is let to a specialist supplier and then an overarching management function (SIAM) created to make sure the ‘towers’ integrate into a single cohesive strategy. Whilst the GDS have suggested alternative approaches that are more in line with current fashions, there are examples of the tower model working and it’s certainly an architecture that’s been a primary consideration with any organisation exploring a fundamental ICT re-structure.
The problem is that once the word is out that something has fundamentally ‘gone off the boil’ even slightly, it becomes very unclear what to do. A similar situation has faced the PSN in recent years. Five years ago, the concept of a single, shared communications infrastructure built to common standards and served by a properly interconnected marketplace was irresistible as a foundation architecture which would enable all of the public sector to save money by sharing applications and avoiding the build of duplicate networks. Huge investment was put into creating the infrastructure and the compliance regime to make this happen and many organisations, particularly in local government, initiated projects, including Kcom’s customers in Staffordshire, Dorset and the East Midlands. Many of those are still running successfully today.
So has PSN gone out of fashion? Part of what made it feel more like an uncomfortable uniform rather than something fresh and attractive was the compliance regime, which is essential to make things work properly. All connected public sector bodies and suppliers needed to get through in 2013, against a background of zero tolerance. This created costs for some authorities to get through compliance, which overshadowed the significant savings potential of shared infrastructure and shared services. More recent debates that question the wisdom of the PSN given that we have a shared network called the internet have further challenged PSN.
Fashion is one thing, fit is another. The good guidance offered by bodies like the GDS, the supplier community (as for example represented by PSNGB) and the experience of successful adopters is important but surely the specific requirements of each organisation should determine which fashion fits best?