Buy new or re-use networks for the HSCN?

Procurement of services for the Health and Social Care Network is going to test the case for leveraging existing regional data networks

The establishment of the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) passed a milestone last week with the announcement that NHS Digital, the agency leading the procurement, had signed Yorkshire based IT managed services provider Redcentric to develop the Peering Exchange.

Data abstract - binary numbersThis basically lays the ground for interconnecting the different networks that will make up the HSCN, takes the NHS closer to the migration away from the existing N3 network, and provides a big step towards a tighter integration of health and social care in England, with the first deployments expected in autumn of this year.

While the Peering Exchange will provide what Redcentric has described as the “super switch” for all of the customer network service providers (CN-SPs) to the HSCN, it leaves open the question of what form the individual networks will take. There are questions around their procurement, and whether they will be using involve big new investments or hook up with existing public sector networks.

HSCN programme director Dermot Ryan emphasised the move towards a competitive market in commenting on the deal, estimated at £12 million in the tender document, with Redcentric.

“The contract is a significant step forward in establishing an HSCN marketplace of assured network services,” he said. “This marketplace will drive competition amongst suppliers, improve consumer choice, support innovation and deliver value for money.”

Different routes

In response to questions from UKAuthority, NHS Digital has re-emphasised the point, saying that health and social care bodies can buy network services through different procurement routes, including regional groups aggregating demand, and choose from connectivity options to best serve their own needs.

John Jackson, chief executive of the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), presses the case for building the HCSN on existing networks rather than through new procurement, and points out that the capital already has the LGfL and the LondonPSN.

“We already have a London network that has gone through an OJEU procurement,” he says. “They would have to do the due diligence and think about their precise requirements, but there is a volume, there’s no need for a big project team, it can integrate health and social care with councils and schools, and it makes cloud services a lot easier to provision.

“London has its own infrastructure under the governance of local authorities, and there are others in places as such as Kent. It’s needless to spend a lot of money on new procurement.”

He adds: “There is a real opportunity to join up public services in a way never done before and obtain economies of scale at a level never before achieved. We should be leveraging existing infrastructure and avoiding expensive procurement costs.”

Regional engagement

NHS Digital indicates that it is taking the possibility seriously. A spokesperson says: “We are engaging with a number of existing regional partnerships, including Public Services Network (PSN) partnerships, to investigate the opportunities to join up.

“Specifically, we have been working very closely with the Yorkshire and Humberside PSN partnership for some time and will continue working with them this year to deliver a collaborative procurement for network services that will be adopted by all sorts of public sector organisations in the region. This includes existing YHSPN consumers and health and social care providers who currently use N3.”

It adds that there are no specific issues with existing infrastructure or services that could provide blockers, but adds: “We believe that standardisation and regular market testing is the best way to achieve, validate and sustain value for money and access to the latest technologies and service offerings.”

Minimise risk

NHS Digital also expresses an element of caution around regional networks. Its spokesperson says: “Achieving and validating value for money is really important for us and, while we see clear benefits in sharing regional networks, we are also keen to minimise the risk of regional monopolies emerging by encouraging regular market testing.”

The organisation is also planning to set up frameworks and contracts for the HSCN that it will regularly re-procure.

The fact that NHS Digital is working with the Yorkshire and Humberside group indicates that it is not dismissing the re-use of existing networks; but it is likely to set tough demands for achieving connectivity. And a lot will depend on how its work on the Peering Exchange goes over the coming months.

It is a nuanced picture, but one in which the balance seems to leans towards new procurements, with the prospect of regularly updating services against them. Those in favour of leveraging existing networks can make a strong business case, but their connectivity will have to be as strong as any designed for the HSCN to give them a chance.

Image from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, public domain via Wikimedia Commons