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Has cloud been over-sold and politically-pushed on reluctant local government?

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood April 25, 2017
Brunel University researchers recommend that local government needs to look before it leaps when it comes to cloud adoption.

Town Hall
A hard-hitting analysis of the very mixed picture emerging of the real-life impact of cloud adoption in UK local government is recommending that the sector ‘looks before it leaps’.

A study of three local councils’ pre- and post-cloud experiences conducted by researchers at Brunel University found the cloud brought several “pluses”.

These include making it easier for managers to offer team members the ability to more easily regularly work remotely and better information management, the team found.

Cloud has been put forward as a useful way to move in-house IT services like servers, email and telephones to Internet-based providers to cut costs, Brunel points out.

Warwickshire County Council and the London Borough of Hillingdon were among the UK’s first to announce plans to switch around 2012, it states.

But the move to cloud also has been found to have definite downsides, with one unnamed council instantly hit by hacker, for example. With security still cited as the main barrier to adoption of cloud, this has a message for  both local government and central government, according to the University’s lecturer in operations and information systems management Uthayasankar Sivarajah, who helped lead the exercise:

One of the authorities faced an immediate security breach that caused chaos. Data was accessed illegally by an unauthorised third party and the private sector cloud provider blamed human error.

Other “major cons” revealed by the probe are a lack of data ownership and loss of control and governance because of a grey area around who has access to information, says the study.

Cloud as a political necessity?

The Brunel researchers worry that authorities tend to make the shift to cloud “too hastily”, perhaps on the basis of overly rosy predictions of benefits from central government, which also tends to downplay any transition hiccups.

Such predictions, it notes, include 2011 assurances from Whitehall that switching to the G-Cloud could save £3.2 billion because as a shared service, costs are spread among organisations.

Six years on, claims Brunel, despite cost-cutting pressure, many public sector managers see the cloud as more a liability than labour saver, with data security and downtime the biggest fears.

Brunel also claims to have detected “a general feeling among workers” that their authority’s move was “a purely rushed attempt to meet the political agenda”.

When asked by diginomica/government for his views on the findings, independent digital consultant and former local government CIO Jos Creese noted that the study

confirms what we probably knew or suspected already – that cloud as a model for delivering IT has many benefits, but there are risks, perceived and real, which are both barriers to adoption and risks if ignored.

Creese, says he has worked both with a variety of councils on cloud adoption models and with independent researchers looking at why cloud is not being made more use of in local government – and the same gloomy findings seem to crop up:

Local government is a complex mix of inter-related services which can make cloud more difficult to use – at least without ending up with a patchwork of solutions creating a data management legacy nightmare.

Secondly, in the past some vendor and GDS advocacy has been narrow, often without caveats and frankly unhelpful. This includes messages such as ‘cloud will save billions’, or that cloud allows councils to concentrate on strategic IT, … cloud is ‘magic’.

The truth is subtler, and for cloud to be a viable option it needs to be part of a coherent IT and digital strategy that prioritises that adoption and minimises risks – data and security in particular.

Creese and many other believers in public sector IT procurement reform remain convinced that use of cloud will save councils money and that it is a critically important delivery model that deserves faster and greater take-up. But, as he notes:

Careful planning is needed and it is far from an easy panacea that some pundits would have us believe.

For Brunel's Sivarajah, there are huge gulfs between what UK councils are trying to do with cloud and what they are achieving.

The biggest lesson is that the right person needs to drive and lead the implementation and sell it to the workers.

At operational level [local authorities] could all see real benefits in cost savings, but it is still early days and we don’t know what the long-term impact will be. That may take ten years to find out.

Cloud might reduce the headcount in IT departments, but I can’t see it cutting out the need for them altogether.

My take

Any IT manager worth his or her salt never takes any industry promise on face value. Time and again, Silicon Valley has wheeled out the latest shiny thing - all the way back to 4GLs and Expert Systems down to DevOps and Web Apps - as ‘the answer’.

IT professionals respond by waiting until the froth has evaporated, then take a careful, sceptical look at what the new thing can actually do in practice. This pragmatism results in the kind of steady, natural acceptance - or rejection - of a technology, and is part of the lifecycle of the IT leadership community.

What’s a bit more worrying is the suggestion by Sivarajah and his colleagues that it’s been political pressure and expediency that’s been a factor in the drive to take up cloud. We're sceptical about this conclusion at local government level. In reality, the absence of a 'local Government Digital Service' piling on the pressure and no Cloud First mandate outside of Central Government makes that seem unlikely.

Even with Cloud First principles (still just about) in place, cloud is being adopted slowly and steadily in Central Government circles and at a far more modest pace at local level. Indeed, the slow adoption of cloud in local government has been a common complaint at industry events for years. That suggests it’s not being seen as any kind of ‘magic bean’ by naive, tech-fashion-obsessed internal IT leaders.

There are understandable reasons to be cautious, of course. As both the Brunel team and expert commentator Creese point out, poor planning and especially badly thought-out introduction and change management can hinder chances of overall success...but then that's true of any IT implementation and hardly unique to cloud.

That suspicion by local government team members that cloud is another way to kill their jobs is especially worrying and one that needs to be tackled head-on and its fallacy demonstrated.

Bottom line - local government can and should be using cloud,  done in a way that maximises the real benefits of this form of IT delivery - cost savings and efficiencies and enhanced productivity. Sensible caution shouldn't be used as an excuse for inertia.

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Disclosure - Additional commentary by Stuart Lauchlan

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