Essex’s smart summit's retail thinking will explore how digital can change people’s lives
County council also sees PSN and ubiquitous networks as key to streamlining public service, ‘taking the walls down’ and increasing collaboration
Essex County Council wants to challenge “institutional thinking” by inviting the private sector to a digital ‘summit’ to help explore how together they can change people’s lives.
The council is particularly keen to learn how the retail sector might be able to bring different thinking to areas such as the domiciliary care market.
The Smart Essex Digital Summit hopes that by adopting a ‘changing lives and raising prosperity’ approach, it can differentiate itself from other digital government events.
David Wilde, the executive director and chief information officer for Essex County Council and the council’s Cabinet Member for Digital Innovation, IT and Customer Services, Councillor Stephen Canning recently explained their thinking behind putting on the event on February 27th at the BT Tower, and also cast an eye on the future of the Public Services Network (PSN) to be discussed at a roundtable hosted by Innopsis at the Institute of Directors in London on March 9th.
Wilde is bullish about the Smart Essex event and what it is setting out to achieve.
“We’ve set it aside from a lot of the other digital and GDPR stuff on the circuit at the moment by really focusing in, not on what digital is, but how digital is going to change lives. What we’re into here is using digital to improve people’s lives and raise prosperity rather than embracing it because digital is digital.
“And we’re dead serious about what we want do. This is about informing how we’re going to develop our strategy to make this real. This isn’t a salesfest and it’s not just a show and tell, we’re absolutely looking for some good, in-depth engagement and we’ve deliberately targeted not just the public sector but the private sector as well to foster those debates because too few discussions I believe are cross sector.”
Both Wilde and Canning argue that involving the private sector brings a perspective that “challenges head on” institutional thinking.
“Retail is so very consumer oriented. And for us consumer means resident. There is a huge amount we can learn from how we’ve been through this already in the digital world. We’re not precious and we’re not special in local government frankly. The retail experience, the consumer experience is absolutely where we need to get to.”
Canning agrees, “We’re not a special case in local government. Local government doesn’t need to be any different to how a private business operates. Their ideas are just as good as our ideas and in fact when they’re looking at it from a completely fresh and different angle, possibly even better. And the most valuable thing we’ve found is just the challenge of some of the ideas that come up. Some of the ideas can’t work or won’t work but at least they completely shift how we’re thinking about stuff and the space we’re in.”
Canning cites home care as an example. “There is an awful of stuff around can we use the market shaped by local government in Essex to help improve the quality of the home care market? But can we help deliver that to residents through a retail offering like Amazon that is easier or more straightforward for residents to understand, rather than complex and complicated? What models can we mirror?”
Wilde takes up the story. “The Live Safe and Well at Home piece is a really good example. We are working with the Anglia Ruskin University and what we’re challenging head on there is historically social care and health, as we know, is siloed. That’s a well recognised challenge. But how much is the assessment and entitlements and allocation of service driven by financial constraints purely and also by a need to fulfil bureaucratic need?
“When you go and shop on Amazon, do you care about the supply chain? No. You find what you want. You book it. You order it. And it gets delivered. The fact that there is a complicated supply chain there, I don’t care about. I just need to know where to go if I have a problem. But also I don’t have to deal with finding a company to get it from A to B. They do all that. I don’t need to worry too much about how it’s paid for because they’ve sorted out the financials for it. And they’ve got all the security wrapped around that. We could get a lot closer to the Amazon model around domiciliary care than we are today.”
Canning adds, “That social care piece and the way we’re looking at that also solves a lot of the other problems we’re looking at in the adult social care market at once. As a person, do I need to sell my home, or take out a loan or borrow from my children to pay a huge amount up front? Or can the council using its capital reserves invest in some sort of equipment that it can then rent out to me in some sort of Sky Plus type subscription? What other sort of problems can we solve cross sector to do this? Tesco already has home delivery models. Do we need to build another network? Or can we use their model to deliver stuff? This is about talking to each other and far more collaboration.”
Wilde adds, “You can mention Tesco, Amazon, Sky, and hairdressers to visit people at home and cut their hair once a month. We haven’t mentioned any social workers yet. And there is a question (about) getting the private sector involved in this. They do a lot of this stuff for people out there already. If we move away from direct delivery into more enabling and facilitating, as Stephen said, we can frontload capital to then generate a revenue stream that actually is helpful to the council but takes away the affordability question for someone that wants a load of stuff equipped inside their house. And instead of having to pay up front for that they can pay £80 a month.”
The future of PSN
With the Innopsis event in mind, Wilde and Canning also turned their attention to the future of PSN.
“PSN fits into one of our other streams at the conference, which is streamlining public service. The big driver around streamlining public service is, and again, we can learn from the private sector, historically on consolidating and streamlining public services, we tend to do it around service rather than around where our institutions are based. And there has been some success. When you look at M&A in the private sector, one of the first things they do, always, is they move the headquarters into one building as quickly as possible. Plainly and simply because you’ve got to change culture. It sounds simple but there is real power in this.
“When you relocate people, they talk to each other. When they talk to each other, they form relationships. When they form relationships, the collaboration begins and the consolidation can then follow. In the public sector we have thousands and thousands of individual government buildings all over the country. And in the county alone, in Essex, public services are occupying in excess of 3000 buildings. Streamlining public services, if we start moving in that direction, we tick a bunch of boxes. We start putting people together. They’ll start working together and you’ll get the collaboration. On a practical level, you’ll release a load of capital assets that can fund the construction of these things and actually create some receipts and probably reduce the revenue cost of running old buildings.
“The PSN piece is that PSN does this. What you do, get beyond PSN, particularly ubiquitous networking, stick Govroam in, stick guest WiFi or public WiFi in, and you put all that in the infrastructure in when you build it out. It means ubiquitous networking, it means role-based security, and it means spread the point of presence and make sure multi agency working gets real. Which does not mean recreating the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) in isolation from the rest of public service.
“The technology is already there now. Our workforce in Essex is 95% mobile. Our people can work out of Pret. They can work out of Costa. They can work out of McDonald’s as well as working out of our government buildings. And shortly they’ll be able to work out of the NHS sites as well thanks to Govroam. That’s the future. That’s where we need to be.”
Wilde believes other councils around the country are in a similar position in terms of progress.
“Other places around the country and us are all in about the same place. We all have our PSN stuff and we have all for quite a long time been engaging and connecting with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The advantage of PSN and being able to connect and exchange information under information sharing protocols. It’s fine on that piece, but we need to go further. It’s back to my point around points of presence. We need to not just think about connecting the networks up and allowing us to enable to operate from our own building. But let’s start taking the walls down, literally. I don’t think people are doing that yet and that’s where we need to go next.
“Does the information governance allow us to do it? Yes. Does the technology allow us to do it? Yes. Are the security protocols sound? Yes. Should we be using Cloud? One of the biggest anchors we have at the moment, I strongly contend, is that it isn’t PSN that’s the blocker, it’s legacy data centres. And how we’re protecting our doorways through that stuff. By finishing the rhetoric and moving to action around the cloud stuff, and moving to and adopting things like 365 or Google Cloud, whatever your choice is is fine. By adopting that stuff, we can start moving out of data centres. Once we start moving out of data centres, we are no longer anchored to our own estates. I don’t view PSN and our PSN networks as the blockers. “
A recent GDS blog argued that for the vast majority of the work that the public sector does, “the internet is ok,” and so GDS is on a journey away from the PSN. With GDS’ announcement in mind, the Innopsis roundtable in March will examine the future for PSN and consider where it is still relevant.
So does Wilde regard what the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been saying about the future of PSN to be right?
“Yes. They’ve not said it as clearly as they could. They have been a bit gung-ho about, ‘don’t do PSN anymore.’ Read beneath it and what they’re actually saying is, ‘Stop using PSN as an excuse to not operate beyond your borders.’ And underlining that is be clear about what PSN is and what it isn’t. PSN started as a branded thing to get consolidated ubiquitous networks. If you go back twelve years. PSN was originally a good commonsense approach to buying converged voice and data networked managed services. It’s gone on to become about a means by which we should be able to shake hands across those converged networks and to exchange data. The next stage for me now is let’s go even beyond that and actually move to ubiquitous networks. If you look at the wires, what are we really talking about here, underpinning PSN?
“We are talking about predominantly, a BT and Virgin provisioned service, with a bit of Cable and Wireless with a bunch of software on top that defines some domains. But underpinning it, the core infrastructure is still two or three companies. And it’s the same physical infrastructure that we’re riding on for our networks.
“The PSN thing. It’s a commercial issue, which is the extent that government is willing to pay to duplicate networks. That’s one piece. It’s a security question, which is the extent to which we can sustain integrity on security through role-based models rather than the safer, but lazier option, which is domain based models. That’s a real challenge. That’s where the NHS is, sadly. And the third one is, our estates are collectively costing us a helluva lot more than the networks are. How can we use the networks to help us get shot of a lot of our estates, so that we can do stuff like build houses on them?”
Essex has also found PSN to be useful for its Blue Badge disability parking scheme.
Wilde explains, “We do a lot of the validation, thanks to PSN, through DWP, as well because one of the other things we learned, a simple thing, is that like so many local authorities, we insisted in the old days that people had to come into an office and physically bring all the paperwork. This is DWP disability benefit paperwork. Now, we have a PSN connection. If we have consent, we can ask DWP, so why are we asking people to bring their entitlement letter in? We don’t do that. We use PSN to authenticate with consent, within information sharing protocol signed up between the two of us.”