Public sector bodies need to focus on strategic issues in their use of cloud services, writes Steve Boardman, solution director at Rackspace
A consensus has emerged that things are likely to be different in a lot of ways for the public sector when the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided – and that is going to have implications for its use of cloud systems.
This fed into a number of ideas at our recent UKA Live discussion, involving myself, Rob McNally, head of IT strategy and solutions at Leeds City Digital Partnership, Martin Ferguson, policy research director at public sector IT association Socitm, Colonel MC Cornell, assistant head of Army Digital Services and UKAuthority publisher Helen Olsen.
There was agreement that things are already very different to pre-pandemic times on the digital front, with public bodies having made extensive use of cloud to adapt to the lockdown. This is creating a ‘new normal’ in which there will be a lot more home and remote working, and citizens will use digital channels even more in interacting with the sector. And now organisations are beginning to look at how they can deal with future challenges around resilience, the needs of communities and issues such as climate change.
This comes with the prospect of a forbidding financial outlook for the public sector as it deals with the massive debt incurred during the pandemic. An audience poll confirmed a unanimous expectation that budgets are expected to tighten from now on.
Against this, however, is the encouraging view that there is now a greater appreciation among board level leaders and the public of what can be achieved with IT, and that while organisations’ budgets may shrink overall, a larger proportion will go to data and digital technology.
Look to long term
But there is a sense that the pace of change over the past year is not sustainable in the long term. It left many people exhausted and involved initiatives that met an immediate demand. Now there is a need at the look at long term challenges and take a more measured, strategic approach.
This should influence how cloud services are used. Ferguson predicted that there will be pressure for point solutions, focused on specific problems without regard to related issues, and that this should be resisted in favour of a strategic approach. There are issues to consider around legacy applications, security and the integration of infrastructure, and there is no single solution but a need for a pragmatic approach in choosing cloud services that fit within a strategy.
Cornell said that while the pandemic had increased the use of services from hyperscale cloud providers, they will not always provide the best and most cost-effective option, and some workloads may be better left in on-premise systems or in a private cloud. This reflects the trend towards the development of a flexible, hybrid cloud model as the chosen approach for many organisations.
McNally pointed to the potential of the community cloud model, a shared service for a specific grouping of organisations. This could operate for a specific purpose, such as providing a platform for data analytics, and it needs a focus on the capability that its users want to develop rather than the technology itself.
Adopting the hybrid
It reflects a fact that the combination of choices within a hybrid cloud has to be right for the business of the organisation. This was reflected in another of the audience polls, which showed 68% agreeing that the best approach is to use cloud as appropriate for specific purposes rather than to regard as the default approach.
Those purposes are going to depend on what organisations need to do and will influence the choice of services; but the conversation pointed to a couple of areas that could become more important. One is in the use of cloud for analytics services, supporting the intelligent use of data in planning to meet the big strategic challenges. Another is the adoption of low code platforms for the rapid design and implementation of digital services with a reduced need for in-depth coding skills.
Such moves are, however, going to require the development of skills to manage the cloud services effectively, both in integrating them into business processes and adjusting the balance in the hybrid cloud model. It is important to retain the capacity to control planning and services, not becoming over-dependent on third parties. Cornell made the point that an organisation cannot outsource its intellectual thinking.
It is a challenge for the public sector, given that it is unlikely to match the salaries offered by the private sector for many technical skills. But it is possible to achieve a balance between in-house and outsourced skills. McNally suggested it can be achieved from a positive relationship with suppliers, in which a public authority does not need all the skills itself, sometimes has to call on help, but still owns the end result from the work.
Ferguson said there is a potential for centres of excellence shared by public sector organisations, and in tapping into the skills of recent graduates.
Knowledge transfer crucial
There is also more scope for knowledge transfer between suppliers and public authorities, especially in dealing with a provider that manages a series of cloud services. This has not always been part of the deal, but should be built into any procurement, as a partnership in which the two sides work together to transfer the skills to the public sector team.
This is part of a mentality and open approach to transferring skills that is a mantra for Rackspace. As a multicloud solutions provider it recognises that its public sector clients need to take a strategic view in their use of cloud, and that to implement this they need to draw from a strong in-house capability rather than regularly returning to it for support.
We see this as an intrinsic element of how we support public authorities in the strategic approach to capitalising on cloud services, and welcome a conversation on how it can apply to your organisation.
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Image from iStock, Porcorex