Challenges for governments and the public cloud

The UK government published its long-awaited Government Cloud Strategy (PDF) at the end of last month as part of the broader Government ICT Strategy launched in March. The strategy has many parallels to similar initiatives from the U.S. federal government, and it promises “to robustly adopt a public cloud solution first policy.” However, it remains to be seen whether any government will really be able to follow through on adopting public cloud solutions.
Like any large organization, governments deal with complex, aging and unwieldy IT infrastructure. Matters are further complicated by the structure of the national government itself: Strict policies — and even laws — require some data to be shared among systems (for example, in the case of child protection) and explicitly prohibit reuse in other cases, such as when a citizen’s rights could be infringed on.
A growing number of these systems are customer-facing, with the notional design requirement that they be accessible to anyone, regardless of ability, familiarity with computers, etc. Tax returns, for example, are increasingly submitted online. Websites that are less demanding on infrastructure but more widely applicable (at least in the UK, where not everyone has to file a tax return) let citizens tax their cars, renew their passports or book consultations with their doctors. All of these require infrastructure, software and more. But each tends to be designed, specified, procured and run independently from any other government system.
The cloud strategy’s introduction acknowledges some of the issues raised by this complex environment:

The current ICT estate makes it difficult to:

  • achieve large, cross government economies of scale
  • deliver ICT systems that are flexible and responsive to demand in order to support government policies and strategies
  • take advantage of new technologies in order to deliver faster business benefits and reduce costs
  • meet environmental and sustainability targets
  • procure in a way that encourages a dynamic and responsive supplier marketplace and supports emerging suppliers.

The document then goes on to suggest ways in which cloud computing will help to tackle each of these pain points, using public cloud solutions first and falling back on “a private G cloud” where necessary.
Strategically, the aspirations laid out in this latest document are bold, and initially they appear to be both sensible and obvious. However, significant technological, cultural, procedural and legislative obstacles are merely touched upon. For example, in responding to “high levels of duplication, silos of infrastructure, fragmented and often inappropriate provision and low levels of server utilisation,” the document simply suggests an intention to “consolidate and rationalize the existing ICT provision,” which means closing data centers and even forcing previously independent IT operations to share hardware. There can be few government IT professionals who could object to consolidating and rationalizing IT infrastructure, but it is also easy to provide justifications (typically security or legacy requirements) for almost all of the decisions that led to that lack of consolidation in the first place.
Government seeks — and needs — efficiency, cost-effectiveness and agility. These are certainly attributes often closely associated with the cloud but rarely with large public institutions. The language of the strategy, with its talk of central “mandating and control,” and a “Foundation Delivery Partner Programme” in which lead agencies drive “federated commodity services” across government, uncomfortably straddles the two worlds. A strategy like this could create an environment in which innovators are given the tools — and the permissions — they need to build applications and services that reduce costs, increase efficiency and actually meet the needs of citizens. The speed of delivery and the level of innovation displayed by alpha.gov.uk is an example of what might be possible when the constraints are slackened.
On the other hand, the strategy could also do the exact opposite, defining a set of binding rules and contracts that drive costs down in the short term but limit flexibility and choice in ways that ultimately limit government’s ability to respond to new challenges.

Question of the week

Government wishes to be more nimble and cost-effective in its provision of IT. Does simply embracing the cloud achieve this?