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The global move towards a cloud public services network

The public sector is now expected to maintain and even improve services with lower budgets than ever, so it has started to look at the cloud as a solution to help tackle this conundrum. This HP whitepaper looks at how the public sector is planning for and procuring cloud services.

Governments and public bodies in general need to be more innovative in the ways they provide services to citizens, and need to procure them more cost-effectively through the cloud, as part of that.

Read more: Public, private, hybrid: Which cloud is best for your business?

The benefits for government

By adopting cloud computing, government agencies can create a central pool of shared resources covering both software and infrastructure. Such a consolidation of resources leads to a reduction in IT spending. In addition, as governments operate in a strict hierarchical manner and the process for approvals and purchase orders can be a time-consuming activity, cloud computing can streamline such processes by allowing the provision of resources to be done "on the fly".

Also, cloud computing offers the government the ability to have access to the latest software and hardware. The onus of upgrading technology is on the service provider when it comes to the cloud delivery model, which must ensure access to the most up-to-date solutions.

Cloud spending growth

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that government spend on cloud services is growing steadily. As Gartner analyst Christine Arcaris said, "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 either already having an active cloud contract or planning for one. This is illustrated by what has and is happening in a number of countries, including the UK and the US. The latter was the first major government to formally adopt a "cloud first" strategy, starting modestly with the use of Google Mail and Google Docs.

A 'cloud first' approach

Now, according to US federal spending rules, all planned IT investments must include a cloud computing-based alternative as part of budget submissions. And all existing IT investments that need to be enhanced also need to include a cloud alternative.

In the UK, a "cloud first" policy was also adopted last year, built around the UK government's cloud procurement network G-Cloud, which allows the public sector to buy commoditised IT products from a pre-approved list of vendors. The UK government said its "cloud first" policy will drive wider adoption of cloud computing in the public sector, boosting business and delivering savings and efficiencies.

"When procuring new or existing services, public sector organisations should consider and fully evaluate potential cloud solutions first – before they consider any other option," said UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. "This approach is mandated to central government and strongly recommended to the wider public sector. Departments will remain free to choose an alternative to the cloud, but only if they can demonstrate that it offers better value for money."

Read more: What is G-Cloud and how can it boost your business?

However, there are still problems convincing some public sector staff about the merits of cloud computing. Recently published research shows that almost three-quarters of civil servants in the UK 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 UK civil servants about the G-Cloud. The research shows that whilst almost half (47 per cent) of respondents "understand what G-Cloud could offer them", almost three-quarters (72 per cent) said they "still aren't confident about how to use it."

In the rest of Europe, cloud uptake is also very patchy. Last autumn, the European Commission published its "Analysis of cloud best practices and pilots for the public sector" report. The study provides a detailed and up-to-date analysis of cloud initiatives at national level in 10 member states. The report, covering Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK, said "the deployment of cloud in the public sector is at a very early stage."

Government cloud barriers

The report added that countries had taken "very different approaches" in terms of applications covered and types of infrastructure used for cloud deployments. These approaches were clustered into three main emerging models, covering procurement (like in the UK), resource pooling across administrations (including Spain and France) and standalone applications for specific ministries (seen in Denmark and Italy, for instance).

Main barriers to the wider adoption of cloud computing mentioned by the European member states were privacy and security concerns, and "many financial questions", as the "expected benefits still remain very unclear compared to the actual costs." This last concern may well be driven by previous large governmental IT projects, where actual costs have often been higher than anticipated costs, and cost savings smaller as a result.

In the UK, where departments previously often spent hundreds of millions of pounds on single IT projects - with a number of high profile failures - the government is determined to use the cloud to enable contracts to be broken up into smaller chunks to help get a better steer on costs. Going back to the report, member states also cited a "lack of interoperability or clear service level agreements" as a barrier to faster cloud adoption. Data regulation was also a key barrier, as many countries do not allow some data to be stored externally or shared between administrations.

Read more: How much does it cost to move your organisation to the cloud?

Despite the concerns though, the European Commission report identifies areas where cloud pilots should be undertaken to help drive cloud uptake across governments, and enable them to reap financial and organisational benefits. These included business portals and commercial registers, transport information services, research and the education sector, the health sector, and cargo and logistics. The adoption of public sector cloud services could be speedier, but it is hoped that the clear benefits of the cloud will help create much greater traction in the short- to medium-term.