Cloud & The Public Sector

This article first appeared in Spring 2010, in Central Government Procurement Review, a biannual policy document. Pressed to save cash, the Public Sector is going to have to use Cloud technology to meet its IT needs. Julian David of Intellect, the IT industry association, explains what this means. Not my specialist subject, but an enjoyable morning spent in his company in Russell Square. Good guy.

G-Cloud promises more shared services, greater collaboration, huge savings. Is this the IT industry making the case for selling less product to the public sector?
What we want is to sell better, not less. The IT industry is all about bringing efficiency to total operation. Every industry innovation has delivered more for less; the performance or functionality gets better each year, in terms of scope and scale.
G-Cloud will enable the industry to bring more ICT solutions to bigger and broader areas: how can new technological innovations be applied to new areas? If unit costs come down that’s fine, because overall usage goes up.

But the industry has been accused of perhaps over-selling IT, or at least failing to implement effectively.

I don’t agree that’s the case. Yes, there has been a complicated and patchy history of implementation in the public sector – and the reporting of it. Nobody wants to report projects that go well, where efficiencies are delivered. If a project comes in on time and under budget it is not a headline. When something goes wrong it makes the news. I think the public sector gets a bad press, particularly local government.
If you’re dealing with big implementation projects – and, by the nature of the beast, what the government does is bigger than anything else – you have to expect complications. Overall, local authorities have a good track record of delivery and keeping budgets under control.
Take the DVLA site, the electronic vehicle licensing service. It’s been a fantastic success. You can log on at night, type in your registration, it finds the insurance and MOT, processes the payment, and dispatches the disc. It handles more transactions than Tesco.

How will G-Cloud transform the public sector’s approach to IT procurement?
One of the challenges of public sector IT is the scale and complexity of the task, and the size of the teams involved. Once the Cloud infrastructure is in place it offers the prospect of doing smaller, more manageable tasks.
The government wants to reuse applications that are proven and available, on the Cloud, via an app store, say, a HR or CRM system. Now, these apps need to be scalable and work off the same infrastructure, and procurement rules will need to be clarified, but having a menu of proven, preselected apps to chose from takes away the need for fresh specification.

What services could go on the Cloud?
In theory, everything. The first thing to address is the data, service levels and standards of security – and the government is doing this. Creating a degree of assurance.
Incredibly complicated apps don’t lend themselves to the Cloud – and we assume there will always be another infrastructure, at least in the near term. But if you think of software as a service, not an asset, then, 100 per cent of what you do could go to the Cloud.
Local authorities are keen to involve citizens, external bodies and the Third Sector. To do this you need a common infrastructure. That’s complicated, and needs to be funded from somewhere.

So it’s more a question of attitude than technology?
Well I don’t think there’s a technological issue. If you look at the path large, private sector organisations take: they consolidate what they can, then virtualise, then go to Cloud with a scalable, flexible infrastructure.
Plus, the government’s Green ICT strategy says sharing resources can have a fantastic impact on carbon (and cost) reduction.
The technology is proven – we all have some first-hand experience of Cloud computing with, say, Gmail or downloadable maps. Some apps are already ready and we’re now seeing evidence from large development shops that the time it takes to create, test and configure new apps is being reduced from weeks to hours.

The possibilities for new apps sound the most exciting aspect of G-Cloud.
Because you’re opening up the data, you’re enabling this concept of web 2.0, mash-ups. The common infrastructure and open standards allows innovators to create apps for very specific interest groups, say, carers, social clubs, parks management. It could be entrepreneurs doing this, but why not local authorities’ own IT departments.
Every local authority I’ve ever dealt with wants to promote local industry and innovation, they want to be more attractive to private enterprise. Cloud brings two bangs for your buck: it will encourage enterprise to create new solutions and service delivery outcomes, and you have the ability to deliver this expertise to citizens without having to build new, central facilities.

The worry is this all sounds too good to be true; what are the threats to G-Cloud succeeding?
Well, firstly, though it is an enabling technology, it can only work if the organisation has sorted its business processes. You only find out the possibilities after creating a proper process map: what is the objective, who is involved, how is it managed?
The government is already addressing the biggest issue: the ownership and security of data and access. There’s a possible concern that too much data access could lead to individuals or groups being identified.
Perhaps the biggest concern is how the management within local authorities embrace the opportunity. If you can coordinate everything that goes on in a local area – say, the local impacts of the DWP, HMRC, emergency services, NHS, DCSF, you can create areas of synergy. If you can coordinate that activity the savings could be massive – and so could the outcomes.
This would involve changing team structures. You may now form teams around specific projects, rather than set structures and departments. In the private sector, best practise doesn’t involve solid structures, but assembling the right skills around a project.

Has the election has an any affect on G-Cloud?
I can’t see it making any difference; the technology is here and it’s only going to get faster. The economics dictate. Whoever got in they were not going to magic up the cash to hit savings targets. Cloud technology allows you to do things more cost effectively.
The timing is right. Things are going to have to change anyway. There is a need to keep service levels up – they have improved dramatically in the public sector, but the comparison is always with private sector. Cloud allows local authorities to centralise, share and consolidate infrastructure for the things that are same, and free up the things close to the customer. Separating the two – the infrastructure and the contact interface – allows for more specialised offerings.
A recurring theme from many local authorities I’ve spoken to is to have citizens doing more for themselves, disaggregating services. It could be that you create a system where completing one action entitles citizens to a certain benefit or discount. Now, Intellect doesn’t have a view on the politics of this – and is charging a flat fee a more efficient way of collecting Council Tax than managing customised individual fees? But you have the technology to try it. In the past, experimenting with new ideas was quite hard. Cloud will make it easier. And if it doesn’t work, drop it. The time and expense will be minimal.

Julian David is a Main Board Member of Intellect and a Vice Chair of the Public Sector Council with particular responsibility for Green ICT and the UK Government Data Centre and G Cloud Strategy development.  Julian previously worked as Vice President of IBM’s UK Public Sector Business providing products and services to Central and Local Government, Defence and Public Safety, Education and Health and Life Sciences.

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