Catalyst needed for local government G-Cloud move

Richard Blanford says local government needs to experience a compelling event before moving to the Cloud.

As the new G-Cloud 7 framework is announced, why is local government apparently lagging behind other areas of the public sector in moving services to cloud? Sales through G-Cloud reached more than £800million by the end of September 2015, but only a small proportion was attributed to local government – just 4.3% of September’s G-Cloud spend.

Surveys have pointed to various reasons for this, but our work with public sector organisations suggests that both survey designers and commentators have ignored key factors which drive major IT change and why the local government IT environment is very different from that in central government.

First let’s look at what recent surveys are saying. One published on 30 September found that only 31% of public bodies support moving operations to the cloud, compared to 48% in private firms. A second published a week later found that 77% of staff across all departments had not heard of G-Cloud, while a further 17.8% had heard of it but not used it. Of the 4.4% who had used G-Cloud, almost 80% were overwhelmingly positive, believing that it had improved procurement.

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If we unpick this data, it tells us that almost one-third of public bodies support moving operations to the cloud – which means that acceptance has gone well beyond the ‘early adopters’ phase (early adopters typically make up 13.5% of the population). Staff may not have heard of G-Cloud, but that does not necessarily mean they are reluctant to use cloud in principle, just that they are unaware of this procurement framework.

What seems to have been ignored is that no-one is going to change an IT infrastructure that is working well and begin moving services to cloud when there are other priorities competing for ever decreasing budgets. To consider a move to cloud, public sector organisations need a compelling event – a reason to make a step change in how they provide such services to their users. They are not driven by the desire for competitive advantage that motivates their private sector counterparts to adopt the latest technology, but by the need to provide an uninterrupted and effective service. Without a compelling event, they are most likely to retain the status quo and spend their budgets elsewhere.

To consider a move to cloud, public sector organisations need a compelling event – a reason to make a step change in how they provide such services to their users. For those which have outsourced some or all of their IT service provision, this may be the imminent conclusion of a contract. It is also easier to move an outsourced service to cloud than to move one currently provided in-house.  Fordway has assisted in several cases where the compelling event is the ending of an outsource agreement, forcing the authority to review its IT service provision. These include South Buckinghamshire DC, who entered into a shared service provided through Chiltern DC; Lewisham, whose contract end resulted in Brent’s IT team providing the core of its new IT service; and the recently announced shared back office between Richmond and Wandsworth which was in part driven by the imminent end of Richmond’s current IT outsourcing agreement.

It may be a major budget cut, such as the recent Spending Review. These events serve as a catalyst to consider cloud, but it will of course still need strong leadership and the right political climate to successfully implement the necessary change. 

A second issue specific to local government is the way its IT is structured. Central government departments largely exist to carry out a single activity, normally based around one or a small number of linked computer systems which are relatively straightforward to outsource or move to cloud. In contrast, each local authority will be running 20 or 30 discrete systems to support services including housing, children’s services, adult social care, education and parking.  It is also very likely that the central Government department’s IT service is currently outsourced; the vast majority already are.

While on paper all local government organisations may look the same, beneath a level of commonality there are a lot of different systems and many entrenched interests. We describe them as several hundred local organisations all doing the same things differently. One solution could be a standard suite of local government applications, developed and run by local authorities, delivered as SaaS on a cloud platform. However, for this to work the government will need to step in and effectively ‘pick winners’ by supporting specific applications for use across local government, which would contradict its preference for a competitive marketplace and giving local authorities choice and autonomy.

It would also go against the views of many in local government. At the recent SOCITM conference, the deputy head of the local government association Peter Fleming spoke out against the idea of extending the Government Digital Service into local government because local government isn’t the same everywhere.

Perhaps the solution falls somewhere between the two, with a shared services approach where one authority takes responsibility for providing the IT service to others. This is already working successfully for Chiltern and South Buckinghamshire District Councils, and for the London Boroughs of Brent and Lewisham, to name two examples.

In my opinion, there is considerable scope for cloud in local government, but its wide scale adoption will need both a compelling event and a different approach from the one which is being adopted in central government. The imminent Spending Review may provide the compelling event; in the words of one famous British politician: “it is such a shame to waste a good crisis”.

Richard Blanford is managing director of managed cloud consultancy Fordway

Colin Marrs

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