Industry voice: The biggest value of cloud for the public sector is in its capacity to enable transformation, but it requires robust business cases that focus on the value beyond cost efficiency, revised business models and cultural change, writes Kerry Appleton-Norman, public sector technology partner at Deloitte
Exploiting the potential of the cloud involves a lot more than getting to grips with the technology; it’s about people, change and organisations embracing its transformational nature.
Public authorities can obtain immense benefits from moving digital systems to the cloud, but this involves looking beyond the immediate returns and being ready to change their structures and their attitudes, being able to test and learn as part of change.
These were among the points to emerge from a recent UKA Live discussion on the subject in which I took part with Juan Villamil, chief technology officer of the Department for Work & Pensions, Simon Clifford, director of digital and data at the Police ICT Company, and Helen Olsen Bedford, publisher of UKAuthority.
A recurring theme was the capacity of cloud to modernise the way that public authorities work. Clifford spoke about the potential to promote collaboration within and between organisations through cloud based tools, and to improve engagement with employees. It raises the need to break down some cultural barriers and provide the relevant training, but is going to be a major factor as digitally savvy millennials account for a larger proportion of the workforce.
He also suggested that cloud is the most viable route to harnessing emerging technologies such as machine learning and AI, providing the computing power and analytical tools to process vast quantities of data. It gives organisations the flexibility to try new technologies and approaches, but they have to be smart customers in avoiding vendor lock-in and obtaining long term value for money.
Benefits over time
Villamil spoke of the DWP’s experience in reducing costs through cloud, making the point it has involved looking beyond the immediate cashable savings in replacing systems. The financial benefits are building up over time through the increased agility of the department, the scope for innovation and the savings from better outcomes for citizens.
It has required other investments. These have included building an API gateway to support the integration of cloud systems and the sharing of more than 10 million records each day; and investing in the training of existing employees to build additional digital capability. He said the budgeting is a complex process and there is a sizeable challenge in building the capability, but there have been plenty of opportunities across the DWP by demonstrating to staff the benefits of the change.
In turn, this is providing the scope to explore new technologies across the public sector: Villamil pointed to the potential for blockchain; Clifford to voice interfaces such as Alexa and Siri.
But it always comes with a degree of risk and the 'test and learn' flexibility in cloud means some solutions will not work out. This is a new way of working for the public sector, where the concerns around taxpayers’ money and the societal impact of its services can make people nervous of this approach. It needs a cultural shift to acknowledge when a change has not worked, what can be learned and to be ready to move on quickly with recriminations.
It leads to some key lessons. One is that organisations need to remember that adopting cloud systems is about more than just beginning to use the technology. They should look at how it can support changes in their structure and the way they work to become more efficient and raise the standards of service delivery.
This demands a cultural shift, with the people in an organisation being ready to adapt to new ways of working, both in their use of technology and how they interact with each other and the public. It is about the organisation changing to maximise the potential of the cloud.
Beyond early savings
Another is that in building the business case for a cloud migration you need to look beyond the early cost savings and focus on the longer term benefits. These can begin with the efficiencies and time savings that give people more time to focus on value added activities, and extend into the flexibility for future change.
Breaking the reliance on in-house legacy systems makes organisations more agile in responding to new challenges and opportunities, some of which will be difficult to foresee. Technology is evolving so quickly that cloud’s capacity for supporting experimentation and the use of new solutions makes it a very powerful tool.
Taking this into account should be a central element of the business case for a migration.
Along with this is the need for a change in mindset to provide scope for failure. The public sector is traditionally-risk averse, but it can learn from the private sector in being more tolerant of small failures, as these can provide a learning experience and help to get things right the next time around.
It is easier to take this approach with cloud, as using it to test a solution does not require a major investment and it is easier to rectify the shortcomings and move on than with in-house legacy systems. Acknowledging this can foster the mindset that encourages innovation in delivering services.
Overall, the real benefits come when public authorities are ready to embrace the transformational nature of the cloud, not just in the immediate migration to new systems, but in looking to the longer term and further changes in technology. The major advantage in cloud is that it can help to make an organisation technology-fit for the future.
Image by Jenny Jimenez, CC BY 2.0 through flickr