Migrating to the cloud

Cloud computing could be more revolutionary than the invention of the PC in public sector IT, according to the Society of IT Managers, the body for public sector ICT management. A bold statement? Yes. An accurate assessment of reality? Only time will tell. What is not in doubt is that the delivery of applications via the cloud will have an impact on the way government IT and public services are delivered. Fiscal austerity is the new international trend and, given the recent budget, the same can be said of the public sector. This, combined with the potential for enhanced delivery of public services, means we will see more and more public sector IT departments thinking out cloud as migration to this new model becomes an attractive proposition in the coming decades.

Taking us by storm
To say cloud computing is taking the public sector by storm would not be unreasonable: payroll, human resources, management and resource planning, for example, are all being either considered for migration to be delivered via the cloud, or have already made the transition.
While many public sector departments may not have complete autonomy to migrate their entire back-end processes and functionality to be cloud based, the desire for much improved public services coupled with the more urgent need for cost savings is driving more and more government departments to consider where cloud computing can fit into their strategy.
In terms of cost savings, the government believes it can save £3.2bn annually in IT costs through a combination of actions with cloud computing at its heart. One part of the strategy, which will save the government £300 million a year through reduced power usage according to the government’s ICT strategy paper, is to consolidate the many data centres owned by the public sector down to 10 to 12 secure, mega centres. These data centers will be used to host the government cloud – the idea being that public sector bodies will then be able to choose their applications – such as word processing, communication or customer relationship management tools – from a store on this government cloud.   
According to Government CIO John Suffolk:  “The technology has matured to allow us to do this now and it will mean we can cut costs and deliver better public services.”   
It’s not just the UK government implementing cloud solutions. Across the world, governments are hoping to reduce IT expenditure and cloud computing is seen as a big part of the solution. In the US, every new IT project the Federal Government takes on has to consider a cloud computing approach. And in Taiwan, the government recently announced a huge US$800 million investment in creating a government cloud service. Under the plan, the Taiwanese cabinet will combine the information systems in over 4,000 government organisations around the island into two to three cloud-computing centres.

Public service delivery
However, while saving costs in this era of financial strife is vital, without visible benefits to the public, the strategy runs the risk of being mooted a letdown. The ultimate aim then, for any government cloud computing strategy, is to improve public services. As the UK public becomes increasingly familiar with cloud-based consumer functionality, from e-mail to online storage to banking, there is growing pressure that public services should too allow citizens to be more autonomous with their own information.
Earlier this year the former UK government announced it wanted to create a personalised webpage for every citizen by 2015. This was to be a place where citizens get medical advice, pay their taxes, license their car and even consult their child’s teachers – all from a computer. If this initiative survives into the new administration, it will revolutionise how we interact with our government. It will give a citizen centric, single view of the state and will mark the biggest change in how we interact with the government and public services since the formation of the modern bureaucratic state.

This will give us access to governmental departments and services anywhere we are in our lives and will lead to the connected state where we can access any public services we like through one uniform website rather than dealing with a plethora of departments. The move could also see the exponential reduction in back office functions for departments dealing with job centres, tax, vehicle licensing, passports and housing benefit within ten years as services are offered through a single digital gateway.

A word of caution
Cloud computing though is no silver bullet to awe-inspiring public services or the budget deficit; there are still challenges to consider.  
Making decisions based on anticipated return on any investment can be tricky. In addition, there will also likely be hidden management, transition and usage costs that need to be uncovered and assessed early and repeatedly in the decision-making process. Not only that, but there is an initial outlay of costs, as well as integration fees and technological upgrades, to consider too. The cost savings need to be viewed with a “short term loss, long term gain” pair of spectacles.
Another factor to consider is that complex IT legacy systems are not necessarily good candidates for migration to the cloud. Based on feedback from the private sector, cloud computing might be better suited to enabling new processes, applications and services that have been too difficult or expensive to offer previously. Interoperability and lock-in also need to be considered; government agencies don’t want to escape one contract only to be locked into a cloud agreement for many years, preventing further innovation.
Then there are the major challenges of data security. While, in principle, cloud computing is little different from more traditional outsourcing arrangements, public sector IT managers will have to consider whether the security surrounding cloud environments complies with laws, policies and protocols. A chief concern arises around the potential for a cloud environment to have multiple tenants. Departments may not know or trust all of these tenants – and the risk of information theft or reputational harm may discredit the entire process in the eyes of the public.
A final challenge will be ensuring business continuity. Gmail, Amazon and SalesForce have all experienced significant outages over the past two years. It is important therefore, that strategies are in place to reduce the risks, such as effective SLAs, disaster recovery of material and business continuity planning. Conversely, however, cloud computing may mitigate some of these risks by enabling the public sector to replicate data and business processes in the cloud, where they can be warehoused more safely than at existing data centres at minimal cost.

The future is set
Cloud computing is not a panacea to complex, inefficient public services or a costless process that can engender immediate financial windfalls. As I mentioned above, there are challenges facing every public sector department IT manager and issues to be overcome. Yet the potential benefits, societal, economic and political, are of the likes we have never seen before. We are on the cusp of democracy at its purest form through the PC. Cloud has the potential to revolutionise how we operate as a country and how we interact with the government and with each other. It is this potential that will, I think, ensure that cloud computing remains steadfastly at the top of the IT agenda for the public sector for many years to come.

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