Can the experience of central government in implementing cloud technologies offer lessons for council ICT chiefs? A recent round table event found out.
Since the coalition came to power, budgetary pressures and policy priorities have combined to change the public sector in many ways – not least its organisational landscape.
The 2010 review of more than 900 public bodies resulted in the abolition or merger of dozens of agencies and quangos, while a drive to cut administrative budgets by a third by 2015 has led to major institutional reforms in almost every department and agency.
Public spending looks set to continue falling after the next election, so it’s clear that public bodies will need to keep focusing on structural and efficiency reforms in the years to come.
Meanwhile, government departments and agencies are being encouraged to take advantage of new cloud-based technologies to save money and improve the efficiency of their IT systems.
The hope is that cloud technologies will not only save money, but also enhance reform by enabling organisations to tap into new technologies and digital services.
For technology buyers, a central framework and marketplace for buying cloud services aims to streamline procurement.
These benefits are generally understood, but making them a reality in public sector organisations is not always straightforward.
So PublicTechnology.net sister title Civil Service World and services broker Cloud Direct brought together officials from across government to discuss how cloud technologies can be used to support and enhance organisational reform.
As the discussion began, participants shared some of the benefits they hope to realise through greater use of cloud technology.
Flexible working was a key aim for the group, both within and across organisations.
Greater use of cloud to support remote working, for example, would create efficiencies and reduce travel and estate costs, but also enhance service reform – as Gill Standen, from HMRC’s Central Policy and Strategy Directorate, explained.
“As part of our transformation programme, we have reduced our face-to-face customer contact and enquiry centres,” she said.
“We’ve replaced them with an ‘enhanced needs service’, which requires that our officers may have to go out visiting clients in their own homes.
And providing cloud technology – so staff can access HMRC records [remotely] – would be tremendous.”
Nigel Mayer, business change manager at the Ministry of Justice, pointed out that cloud-based systems could help to smooth mergers and cross-organisational working by making it easier for staff in different organisations or groups to share documents, calendars etcetera.
He noted that the MoJ, formed in 2007, brought together a number of “major organisations with their own legacy systems, ways of working, operating systems, IT platforms”, which has sometimes made it hard to work together in the new department.
“If the future of the civil service is that we will be working more collaboratively across departments,” he said, “potentially the cloud is a way to overcome a lot of [barriers between organisations] and a place where we can all see the documents we are working on.”
John de-Pulford, IT manager for London and Continental Railways (LCR), supported the idea that cloud technologies can help catalyse organisational change.
He explained how they’d been “utilised to integrate two discrete government organisations” – LCR, and BRB Residuary (BRBR) – by progressively moving two disparate IT systems into a shared, cloud-hosted space.
The two organisations were required to merge with one another within 12 months.
“There was no time to run a pilot. We had to sit down and do as much of the theoretical work as possible on paper,” he recalled.
“But the move went fairly smoothly, and the shift to a new system created a framework in which we could streamline and update IT policies and processes across both organisations.”
Tracey Williams, digital strategy and policy adviser at the Ministry of Justice, added that the shift to cloud technologies could challenge departments to end their reliance on paper-based thinking.
“Sometimes I feel that, as government, when we brought technology in what we did was transfer the old piece of paper to the ‘paper’ that now appears on your screen,” she told the group.
“And cloud offers an opportunity, not just to share documents, but to abandon the document format as a whole, by working in different ways.”
Andrew Bull, director of delivery and operations at HMRC, said that using cloud-hosted services has already enabled his department to move tax credit renewals online, with interfaces to front- and back-end systems.
More than 200,000 of these renewals have now been completed online, “and that is an indicator of what we will be doing more and more,” he said.
All of these things – more flexibility, greater joined-up working, and a focus on digitising processes and services – are priorities in reform programmes across government, as well as within departments.
So what obstacles have people encountered as they try to realise the potential benefits of cloud computing?
Procurement is an ongoing issue, the group heard.
Jon Pavitt, head of the Programme Office for Broadband Delivery UK in the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, said he had been advised to look at the G-Cloud’s framework when searching for an IT solution which needed to work across a number of cities and local authorities.
But he found it “completely impenetrable, so it was very hard to figure out what I wanted.”
“The central CloudStore is like “a big catalogue,” he said, “but unless you know exactly what you want, you just close your eyes and stab.”
Unfortunately, the buyer with a clear idea of what they want from cloud appears to be a rare beast: Cloud Direct’s professional services lead, Will Rowley, said he comes across a lot of organisations where very few staff know what they want from the cloud, or how to achieve it.
And just as few, he added, want to ask.
Even where an organisation knows what it wants and can find a supplier to provide it, there can be problems around training users to work with that system, said Pavitt: “There are lots of suppliers who say: ‘Yes we can do this, we can do a proof of concept’, but then there is the change management side of it.”
Traditionally, the civil service has procured training courses and support as part of large IT packages, but the shift to buying directly from specific cloud providers rather than large systems integrators means this is not automatically included in contracts.
“This is a big cultural change,” said Pavitt.
“We can’t just turn to someone sitting around the corner, who will train our staff and help to improve the processes we are working on.”
HMRC’s Bull, having helped to introduce some early cloud-based systems to the department, is now working on a programme to replace the complex Aspire IT system.
The “Aspire contract ends in 2017, but we are keen to get on with transforming the technology environment so that we are moving straight on to commoditised cloud services, so that we don’t need anything like the contract we have at the moment and can move to a multi-source and multi-vendor environment,” he said.
But that will involve shifting all those convoluted legacy systems into a new hosting environment.
Michael Denk, a Home Office change and configuration manager, raised a further challenge: security.
He’s convinced that cloud technologies could improve “day-to-day housekeeping exercises” such as mailing and document storage, but concerned about using the cloud to manage more sensitive data.
Integrated systems “like the Police National Database, the Police National Computer, and other critical computer systems which the police and border control staff use, are crucial to the security of this country,” he noted.
“If you take a system like that and chuck it out in the cloud, I do not have the confidence that the secure links would be there.”
James Findlay, technology lead at the Department of Transport and chief information officer at High Speed Two (not pictured), was more confident.
He pointed out that industry is far ahead of government on cloud adoption.
Security is absolutely critical to banks, he argued: a security breach would put them out of business.
“Certainly within HS2 and the transport department, we are looking to migrate the majority of our systems into accredited cloud environments, and that is the key.
As long as they have gone through that accreditation.”
“The blocker is policy,” he added, “because is the permanent secretary – or whoever – comfortable with talking about their data residing in another country or jurisdiction?”
Michael Beavan, transformation programme director at the Cabinet Office, responded by noting that “a lot of the perceived IT estate is not owned by the government.
It’s all owned by large American multinationals anyway, so why are we getting so precious? But one of the things we find is that, when we say to ministers: ‘We don’t own any of our own data, by the way.
It is all owned by large companies’, they get a bit sweaty.”
David Walker, Home Office operational security manager, suggested that one way to overcome this perceived challenge will be to move away from “traditional security concepts” which focus on protecting the “edge” of a dataset, towards more nuanced protections around particular records.
Security in the cloud can be more focused on the genuinely sensitive data, he suggested: “It’s getting away from the traditional security concepts, and getting into what needs to be developed for a cloud environment, and producing cloud security concepts, that would a key enabler in this space.”
Participants agreed that there will also be a need for culture change to ensure that the full benefits of cloud technology are achieved.
Eliza Rawlings, managing director of Cloud Direct, advised that when it comes to making the most of cloud technologies, it’s important to keep people well-informed: “The process problems are relatively easy to solve.
The people is what takes a lot of management time, to ensure people willingly use it and use it correctly.
So organisations need to plan that way in advance, rather than as an afterthought.”
De-Pulford agreed, saying: “Users are well known to be conservative: they want what they know.” When LCR and BRBR merged into the new cloud-based system, “a selling job had to be done,” he said, alongside work to overcome the inevitable resistance to change within the two departments.
“But once we combined [the systems], once our people could see an innate flexibility in what we were doing – the ability to work anytime, anywhere, off any operating system – and that we were maintaining the security of our existing data infrastructure, we won a universal acceptance,” he concluded.
“We are now six months into a stable operating environment; we have a very happy crew.”
Cloud-based working should be “demystified”, suggested Melanie Poole, Legal Aid Agency systems release and maintenance team manager, so that staff have a good understanding of the over-arching concepts whatever their level of knowledge about digital systems.
“It should be sold to them as a beneficial way of work, which will help rather than hinder them,” she said.
Bull’s advice was that leaders should involve staff and customers in exploring the potential of cloud technologies in their organisations.
“Most cloud services are proper pay-as-you-go, so get some in and have a go! Get some users using it, and be prepared for managing the disruptive change that comes with that.”
Jonathan Walden, digital communications and support officer at the Department of Work and Pensions, agreed that users sometimes come up with new ways of working that managers hadn’t previously considered: it’s important, he said, to engage with these users “about how you adapt this technology to suit your needs, because that is always going to help change.”
Here, Walden had hit on an important point: cloud technologies must be used in ways that fit around the organisation’s needs, and won’t always provide all the answers.
Beavan noted that last year, government launched 13 services through a cloud-hosted web service, but “horrendously complex” systems, such as those for Common Agricultural Policy payments, are a mixture of cloud and more traditional hosting environments.
Expressing a view shared by many around the table, he said: “There is an element of horses for courses, depending on what you are doing.”
“Security tightens as you move to more complex systems, he noted, and “there are technical challenges in moving between different environments – but it can be done.”
Given this ability to blend different systems where needed, Simon Ponsford, chief technology officer at Cloud Direct, agreed that departments should begin by looking at the areas which can easily be moved to cloud – “whether it is migrating email or exchanging notes, or certain types of documents” – rather than missing out on the benefits of cloud entirely.
James Findlay of HS2 agreed, concluding that in the end the use of cloud technologies must focus on business, staff and customer needs, rather than technical features.
“One size does not fit all,” he said, “and on that basis you have to come back to what the user needs.”