Cloud computing: Why governments will face a battle to make it work

Cloud computing is more complicated than swapping out one technology for another - it's about changing the way organisations operate, something that goverments find hard to do.

By 2015, the UK government wants half of its new IT spending to be on cloud services, as part of its plan to build an "agile, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable" IT estate.

But government progress towards introducing cloud services has been slow, with its Cloud First strategy going unrealised and spending through its CloudStore, a portal where public bodies can buy online services, remaining flat since it launched in February this year.

This sluggish start was perhaps to be expected, given the amount of work the public sector needs to do before the public sector can consider adopting cloud services, a debate at the Efficient ICT 2012 conference in London heard.

That's because switching to a cloud service isn't just about swapping one technology for another, it's about changing a way an organisation operates. For example, a bespoke IT system will cater for the idiosyncratic needs of an organisation, whereas a cloud service is a generic system built for the needs of a mass market.

As such, Dr Mark Thompson, lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and ICT Futures advisor to the Cabinet Office warned: "The cloud environment isn't ready to provide a lot of features of functions that we've come to accept.

"It's useless unless we've got a grip of our business models and architecture, and data architecture underlying that, to understand whether we should be using this stuff in the first place."

Before government bodies can replace IT systems built and maintained by suppliers with off-the-shelf generic cloud services they will likely have to carry out a detailed assessment of organisational structure followed by significant restructuring.

"Cloud isn't an endgame," said David Wilde, CIO for Essex County Council, and said realism has "to be bought to bear" as cloud's commodity nature isn't suited to delivering every type of service.

Technology is a small proportion of the process he warned, as the cost of change management, of process reengineering is greater.

"The question you have to ask yourself is 'What's your appetite?', 'What's your clarity about where you're going to get to?' and 'Are you prepared to make those difficult decisions to get to that end point?'."

Even once an organisation has decided cloud is the right fit for a particular task and restructured accordingly, there's still some tricky technical issues to be sorted out. Thompson pointed to the difficulty in dealing with porting problems, complexity and consistency between the old and the new environment.

The size of the upfront investment in time and money when adopting cloud services could help explain the flat spend in the government's CloudStore.

But even in straitened times where public bodies need to find quick savings Wilde believes government bodies will still invest in the switch to cloud services, given the long term savings on offer.

The government's transition to cloud services will not only be long and difficult but in many ways is yet to begin in earnest.

Dr Mark Thompson, lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and ICT Futures advisor to the Cabinet Office, said while the government's cloud strategy is "a great step in the right direction, however it's not the answer".

Thompson said the whole idea of a "G-cloud" or "CloudStore" of services just for government is contrary to the unspecialised nature of cloud services.

"Cloud means that same, it means utility, we do stuff the same as everyone else therefore we can just consume it.

"Putting G in front of it means we're going to do everything the same way but we're going to have a little enclave for government. A government enclave within cloud. [Being] special and not special literally doesn't make sense.

"It's a great step on the way forward, it's highly valuable. It's a beacon for the future in government procurement but it's not the same as the relentless commoditisation [I'm referring to] when I'm talking about cloud."


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.


The problem is there is very little creativity or innovation in many of the governments. They're more keen on why things won't work than they are on how to make things work better.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

over the decades, I'm left feeling just a teensy weensy bit nervous about the potential another huge sum of tax payers money to be wasted. I don't know I'm nervous, it's just a feeling you understand.. The fact that "UK government it project" when typed into to google offered failure as the next word, might have been a contributing factor though....

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

due to many of the legal and security concerns unless it's done in a specialised cloud way. At the moment the cloud companies are private companies who can have their server farms anywhere in the world, that will violate many laws for the handling of government data. What is needed is for the government to have it's own cloud server farm, ie the big brother. If the UK government sets up it's own IT organisations within the UK and offers safe secured cloud services to all the other government agencies while operating within the laws and policies the agencies have to operate within, then this could work. But for them to go commercial with a multi-national, the chances of the laws being violated by accident are just too high.


An organisation can only change what it controls. It's not clear just exactly how much of government computing remains in government hands. The moment for change occurs only when the major outsourcing contracts come up for renegotiation. This is not frequent and when it does come along it may not coincide with other events; a desire to embrace the cloud, for example. It will also be the case that departments in this situation will not be fishing in an abundant pool and what few potential suppliers there are will be bidding their system, their way. This may not be cloud oriented to any degree, if at all. This was typified by the HMRC situation where there were few bidders to replace the incumbent and money needed to change hands before additional bidders could be enticed to bid. But if strategic change is untimely or too difficult, tactical change, nibbling at the edges of the outsourced systems monolith, can be achieved. This approach can pay dividends in the areas of office systems and services – Microsoft Office, email and other similar non-transactional systems can all be moved to the cloud whenever the time is deemed to be right – and in the development of extranets. Government departments, as with any information processing organisation, need to interact with other bodies and, increasingly, staff work from home and other locations and on a variety of devices, (as we saw recently with the Olympics when they were basically told to do so). Achieving this from behind firewalls is usually almost impossible and probably not a good idea anyway. Whereas setting up a cloud based extranet is quick, inexpensive and very tactical. All the things the Cabinet Office are trying to encourage through the g-Cloud. Government departments should be looking to move their office systems onto the cloud and to integrate them with a cloud hosted extranet regardless of whatever situation or relationship they may be in regarding their line of business systems suppliers. Brian Smith

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