Time for govt to fly into the cloud

Cloud computing could revolutionise how the public sector operates, but a tendency to resist large scale ICT change may be holding the government back.

Cloud services will bring about a major rethink in the logic of whole-of-government ICT strategy and the role of the government’s chief information officer (CIO). The cloud will increasingly empower agencies to access ICT cost savings and ICT-enabled innovation without the risks and imposts of mandated whole-of-government procurement and shared services arrangements. Smart CIO’s will accelerate cloud adoption with visionary leadership and a practical problem solving approach to facilitating the procurement and deployment of cloud services by agencies.  

Whole-of-government strategies struggle to find traction in the public service pigeon coop

Disappointment with the ability to realise and sustain the promised benefits of whole-of-government ICT strategies is a common theme. The root of the issue is government’s predilection for boundaries and bureaucracy. National, jurisdictional, and legislative boundaries are reinforced by devolved organisations and management regimes to cut and dice the government world into pigeonholes. Each agency is a pigeon. The pigeonholes create order in the coop.

We can’t change this organisational reality, but it is wasteful for each agency to have its own dedicated, duplicative, and sub-scale ICT infrastructure and applications. Whole-of-government ICT strategies aim to drive consolidation, rationalisation, and standardisation of ICT resources across agencies to cut costs and promote service integration. Surely the pigeons can share?

Unfortunately this agenda is hard work and has delivered mixed success because the pigeons prefer the comfort of their own pigeonholes. Agency autonomy tends to win out in the end.

Multi-pigeon sharing requires new building blocks

When we look at this issue in 2012, with the benefit of having seen how cloud computing models work, we can see that a major cause of the failure of shared ICT services is that they started with the wrong building blocks. The services weren’t designed as efficient, secure, multi-tenant environments. Shared services strategies promised better, faster, cheaper ICT services, but seldom fully delivered these benefits to agencies. This was because it was too difficult and expensive to transform the building blocks of agency-specific infrastructure and applications, as well as processes and people, into those required to create a modern multi-tenant shared service.

Cloud computing can succeed where whole-of-government strategies have failed

The cloud computing model potentially offers a better way forward. Cloud services are designed to accommodate many customers within an efficient and secure multi-tenant infrastructure and applications environment. A service designed for hundreds or tens of thousands of customers and delivered by a trusted enterprise-grade provider can efficiently accommodate numerous different agencies with diverse requirements. Services are configurable and iteratively evolve to take advantage of the latest developments in web services, mobility, and social networking.

Cloud computing can succeed where previous whole-of-government ICT strategies have failed because “cloudy is as cloudy does”. Cloud services already exist as proven operational services with transparent pricing and service performance. This is a very simple, and low risk, proposition compared to agency experiences with whole-of-government ICT strategies that over-promised and under-delivered.

Back in the pigeon coop, cloud enables individual pigeons to access the economies of scale of shared resources without challenging their preference to remain autonomous in their own pigeonholes. Multi-tenant cloud services are designed to comfortably accommodate much bigger flocks of pigeons than only those in one coop.

Whole-of-government ICT strategies need to avoid becoming a bottleneck for agency cloud adoption

One of the barriers to cloud adoption, however, is out-dated ICT strategy thinking that regards cloud as yet another whole-of-government strategy, to be controlled and rationed to agencies through a bottleneck of hyper-conservative and process-bound whole-of-government strategy and procurement arrangements.

The value of cloud computing to government will be maximised when agencies are directly empowered to choose and deploy cloud services within risk-management arrangements. Cloud is a devolved ecosystem that is perfectly aligned to the devolved structures and management preferences of agencies. The cloud will inevitably be, and should be, a transformational enabler of ICT cost savings and ICT-enabled innovation at individual agency-level. The goal should be to accelerate the pursuit of cost savings and innovation in agencies rather than choking it with traditional command-and-control whole-of-government thinking.  

CIOs need to lead the change towards cloud computing

The new agency-empowering dynamics of cloud computing will have a big impact on the whole-of-government CIO role. Until now a government CIO function has been able to defend its operating budget to the treasurer because it was seen as essential to the achievement of economies-of-scale-driven cost savings. If economies of scale can better be achieved by agencies individually choosing cloud services, what economic value can be added by the office of the CIO?

Smart CIOs will see this challenge coming, and will either jump on board or get out of the way. Either way the goal must be to accelerate safe adoption of cloud services by agencies, rather than acting as a cloud gatekeeper, or even worse as a cloud bouncer.

What agencies need from whole-of-government CIOs in the cloud era is leadership and facilitation. The CIO needs to create an empowering vision of how cloud services will drive productivity and innovation, enabling procurement arrangements, as well as with solutions to “old school” legal, regulatory/compliance barriers, and a practical problem-solving approach to the standards necessary to promote integration.

CIOs that still see themselves as adding value by forcing pigeons to share resources against their wishes in the whole-of-government coop will soon find that their pigeons have flown to more accommodating coops elsewhere.

Steve Hodgkinson is a research director at analyst firm Ovum.