That’s how Ivor Nicholson, ICT service director at Nottinghamshire County Council in the UK, describes the task of getting mobile technologies into the hands of public sector staff, while also achieving compliance with government requirements on information sharing and security.In particular, he’s referring to the standards that every local authority and council across England, Scotland and Wales must meet in order to connect to the Public Services Network, or PSN - a network infrastructure that connects them to each other and to a range of cloud-based and hosted IT services. PSN was launched in mid-2011 with the goal of increasing efficiency, improving services and reducing costs, but to describe its short history as troubled would be generous.
In brief, local government representatives, particularly those in IT, frequently complain that the security standards they’re required to meet in order to join PSN are too restrictive, while the costs of achieving compliance are too high. Twenty local authorities (out of a total of 588) failed to achieve compliance by the 1 April 2014 deadline set by the UK Cabinet Office; it wasn’t until late September that the Government Digital Service (GDS), which oversees PSN, was able to announce that the last of the twenty (Telford & Wrekin Council) had finally connected.
At Nottinghamshire County Council, the compliance effort for PSN put paid to any plans to introduce a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy, according to Nicholson.
We were seriously down the road of looking at BYOD, but as a county council we’ve parked that for now. While we’re hopeful it will be an option for the future, it’s not something that’s seen as a priority right now - and it was as a result of the PSN requirements that we stopped considering it as an option.
That said, Nicholson hasn’t held back from getting council staff mobile. He’s just had to find PSN-compliant ways of providing them with council-owned devices, against a backdrop of significant budget restrictions. (Nottinghamshire County Council faces a budget shortfall over the next three years amounting to some £77 million.)
He and his team have focused their efforts initially on Nottinghamshire’s social care services. These can broadly be divided into services for children and those for adults, with social workers in both categories spending a great deal of time away from the office, meeting service users (often in their own homes) and assessing their needs.
A year-long pilot project to equip 100 of them with Apple iPads reaped impressive results, including a 20 percent saving in travel times and a 16 percent lift in productivity. But beyond these metrics, there have been less tangible benefits, too, says Nicholson:
I think most would say that they wouldn’t be without mobile devices now and many have said to me that’s it’s had a big impact on their work/life balance.
There have also been some entirely unintended consequences. Social care staff working with children have used the paint and graphics features on the device to build rapport with children. These kids have been prepared to share views and feelings via the iPad that they would have felt uncomfortable saying out loud.
But while Nicholson and his team were able to achieve PSN compliance with the iPads, it quickly became a challenge to keep up, he admits. Now, he’s planning to phase out the iPads, along with the council’s estate of ageing BlackBerry phones, in favour of a Microsoft-based approach to mobility, using the Windows 8.1 operating system.In November and December this year, Nicholson plans to roll out 350 Windows tablets to social care staff, rising to 2,000 by the end of 2015. He’s yet to settle on a particular model of Windows Phone, but will roll out some 1,000 of them next year. It’ll probably be a Nokia, he says. Either way, he believes he’ll be able to address the PSN compliance challenge this way:
I’ve got no doubts that Windows devices are going to be easier to manage from a PSN compliance perspective. In particular, DirectAccess [a remote connectivity feature of Windows 8.1, similar in concept to a virtual private network] is now PSN compliant, which will help a lot. I just feel we’ll have more certainty with Microsoft in the security of the device itself, as well as the connectivity when an employee is using the device and transmitting information back to our servers in our data center.
It will also satisfy user demands for a more ‘joined up’ experience as they travel between different council offices, court buildings and service users’ homes, he says:
One of the pushbacks is that they want a seamless, common interface between smartphones, tablets and desktops. So, in terms of supporting mobile working at its fullest, this approach will give them the same look and feel on any device.
On PSN compliance, Nicholson is circumspect, but acknowledges that it is in the area of mobility that its burdens are most keenly felt:
We have to make sure that most of the devices our staff use are seen as secure endpoints so we do have to make sure they route directly through our firewalls. Before, we were able to make use of more direct access to the Internet, but we’re not able to do that now. So that’s had an impact on our routing and how we secure different business layers of data and information. It’s also meant a significant investment in infrastructure to provide additional layers of security both internally and around our firewalls.
And that additional investment, he adds, comes at a time when local government IT budgets have never been under more pressure:
It does put you in a difficult position. You sometimes find yourself questioning the value of the [PSN] connection.