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How does the public sector plan and procure business-class cloud resources?

In the face of continuing government austerity measures the public sector is now expected to maintain and even improve services with lower budgets. As a result, the public sector is now looking at the cloud as a solution to help tackle this conundrum.

This analysis looks at how the public sector is planning for and procuring cloud services.

Central governments want public bodies to be more innovative in the way they provide services to citizens and they want them to procure services more cost effectively through the cloud as part of that.

Gartner analyst Christine Arcaris says, "Government expenditure on cloud computing continues to increase, driven by economic conditions and a shift from capital expenditure to operational expenditure."

Government departments have told Gartner they are adopting private and public cloud-based services at an increasing rate, with 30-50 per cent of organisations having an active cloud contract or planning for one within the next 12 months.

Government Procurement via the G-Cloud

The UK government launched its G-Cloud (Government-Cloud) project around 18 months ago. The G-Cloud allows the public sector to buy commoditised IT products from a pre-approved list of vendors.

But there are still problems convincing some public sector staff of the merits of cloud computing, such as reduced capital expenditure, on-demand scalability and having access to the latest technologies when they are needed.

Recently published research shows that three-quarters of civil servants are still not confident about how to use the government's cloud procurement platform.

Eduserv, the not-for-profit IT services provider for the public sector, and DODS, the political information and communication specialist, questioned 530 civil servants about the G-Cloud.

Public Sector Cloud Obstacles

The research shows that whilst almost half (47 per cent) of respondents "understand what G-Cloud could offer them", over two thirds (72 per cent) said they "still aren't confident about how to use it".

The research also highlights that 71 per cent of civil servants are unsure as to whether the G-Cloud creates more work for them or not.

"The study highlights there is still consultancy that needs to be done within the public sector to ensure organisations understand which cloud solutions best fit their needs and solve their challenges", say the two organisations behind the research.

Andrew Hawkins, business development director at Eduserv, says, "I would like to see more being done to ensure civil servants are confident about what the G-Cloud can do and how it can be implemented."

He adds, "With more information and guidance from the government's Cabinet Office and cloud providers themselves, we should see civil servants build the confidence and knowledge they need to adopt the cloud."

Where Government Cloud Procurement is Working

The UK government has been pushing a "digital first" strategy in the public sector, to encourage public organisations to offer services electronically to citizens through websites and other electronic means.

Suppliers involved in the G-Cloud have also been encouraging the government to push a "cloud first" policy to aid faster cloud adoption across the public sector.

That said, there are still good examples of how government departments are using the G-Cloud to improve their performance and save cash into the bargain.

The NHS Care Quality Commission recently awarded a hosting and support services contract via the G-Cloud.

Ixis, which was awarded the contract by the health watchdog, was added to the G-Cloud list of approved suppliers for platform-as-a-service (Paas), software-as-a-service (SaaS) and other specialist cloud services.

Henry Cook, programme director for business improvement and head of digital communications at the Care Quality Commission, says, "We believe the G-Cloud framework is a valuable tool, and we're really pleased to have sourced and procured the web management services we require from it."

Cook says, "This project is crucial as we expand our online presence and it will enable us to be much more responsive as we develop customer facing services."

And it isn't just through the G-Cloud that government departments are procuring cloud services.

Government departments do it themselves

The Government's Insolvency Service recently signed a five-year cloud-based desktop services contract with outsourcer Atos.

The £16 million contract was awarded under the Cabinet Office's Desktop 21 framework agreement. Atos is providing thin client desktop and application hosting services through its Secure Cloud Service.

The Atos system is designed to provide a flexible service for 2,000 users and promises to save money over the duration of the contract, says the Insolvency Service.

Mark Savigar of the Insolvency Service says, "Atos proposed a solution that meets our business needs and we believe it will support us in meeting our organisational objectives for the future."

The Atos offering supports the continuation of the use of low power devices, such as thin-client desktops, in line with the Cabinet Office's green strategy, says Savigar.

The cloud at local authorities

There have also been a growing number of local authorities who have gone their own way in moving IT services into the cloud to save money and benefit from greater scalability and flexibility.

Warwickshire County Council in the West Midlands has moved 185 schools into the cloud using the on-demand Microsoft Office 365 desktop productivity suite and Sharepoint to deliver email and other collaboration systems among staff and students.

The Microsoft cloud platform at Warwickshire won out over an alternative cloud system from Google built around Google Apps, after both services were tested in schools.

Warwickshire schools adopting the Office 365 platform have committed themselves to using the subscription service for at least two years, with the system now supporting around 85,000 users.

Harvey Woodall, Warwickshire e-learning adviser, says, "On the whole schools are finding it simple to use and easy to configure and customise to meet the needs of their individual schools."

Google stakes claim too

Google was more successful at London's Hillingdon Council, where its Google Apps are expected to save almost £3 million in desktop PC maintenance costs over four years.

Under the contract, Hillingdon's 3,500 staff are working with Google's web-based email, calendar, documents and word processing applications.

The council says that moving to Google's cloud-based apps means that its staff can collaborate better, as they are able to access documents anywhere at any time, and work together on documents online in real-time.

Hillingdon staff also have access to Google's instant messaging and voice and video conferencing services.

While cloud adoption in the public sector could be speedier, there is no doubt the benefits of cloud computing will lead to much wider adoption in the near- to medium-term.