Commodity cloud means educating government on how to be a better buyer

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 25, 2014
Summary:
When last we spoke, Denise McDonagh CBE promised to be a cloud champion across government. Nine months on, the CTO at the UK Home Office is still on fire when it comes to the cause of cloud computing and commodity purchasing

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Denise McDonagh CBE

When last diginomica spoke to Denise McDonagh CBE, it was by way of something of a goodbye.

At the time, she was stepping down as the head of the UK government’s G-Cloud cloud computing initiative to take up a new role as Chief Technology Officer at the Home Office. (That’s the UK version of State Department for our cousins across the Pond.)

The occasion was her ‘valedictory address’ to the Think G-Cloud conference in London where she pledged to be a cloud champion within the Home Office and across central government as a whole in the UK.

Flash forward nine months and McDonagh yesterday returned to the world of the G-Cloud with an appearance at the now-rebranded Think Cloud for Government event and demonstrably proved that time away from the program has done nothing to diminish her enthusiasm for the project:

“I’m quite passionate about the development of the G-Cloud and its iterations. Quite rightly people will want more and more from G-Cloud. But we did start this off in a very different way. We started to put something out there so that people could comment on and feedback and give us their requirements so that we could continue to iterate. So it is a fundamentally different framework and it is managed in a different way.

“One of the things about G-Cloud is that the Cabinet Office now has various other frameworks. We now have the Digital Services Framework, we've now got the PSN Framework. It's about how we use all of these frameworks together to get that whole end-to-end service.”

Rethinking the roles

That’s the basic theory. In practice, it’s not necessarily that simple yet. McDonagh admitted that the new world of commodity cloud computing demands some thinking about in terms of roles and responsibilities on the buy side:

“One of the big things that I've found since being back in the Home Office and putting my money where my mouth is, is that I've had to take ownership of the end-to-end service piece. Not only in terms of delivering live service, but also in terms of doing systems integration.

“When I moved back there, I took a very clear decision early on that we would take ownership of this back in-house. Nobody knows my business like my business. Therefore trying to outsource or put that ownership outside is where we got into trouble with what we call the big systems integrators.

"We've had to make some very clear decisions about what we'll own and what we want. I am accountable. I will buy in capabilities to help me from places like G-Cloud and other frameworks. At the end of the day it's my responsibility to make sure that they all fit together.”

Confusion

But while McDonagh is clearly geared up to the challenge, others less familiar with the cloud delivery model may find things more confusing:

“It's not easy because we're starting to do things in a very different way. When we talk about buying commodity, no-one really understands what that means. I still see people saying: 'Oh I want to buy something off G-Cloud, but I just want to change the terms and conditions. Oh and that piece of your service doesn't actually work for me so can we change that?' And then they put out Invitations to Tender. That's just not what the ethos of commodity buying is all about.

“Commodity buying is about absolutely understanding what it is that you want to buy, checking against a framework for the people who deliver that and then buying that component. That's a difficult one for us to get our heads around because it's not just a procurement piece. It's about how do you design architecturally for living in a cloud world. That's very different. Architecturally you must design in a different way to get the best out of commodity purchases as well. If you do that you will see significant benefit, not just in terms of cost but in terms of speed and agility.”

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If executed correctly however, the rewards can be significant:

“A number of the programs in the Home Office are now adopting commodity buying and Agile delivery. I've seen in one of my programs where we wanted to spin up a test environment. Before that would have taken me a number of weeks if not months and a number of pounds. We were able to do it in half an hour and the cost was absolutely minimal. That speed and agility in terms of us being able to deliver for the very demanding program that we have is absolutely one of the key benefits.

“But it's not easy and it does mean that for people on my side trying to deliver this I've had to look at the capabilities that I have within my team and look at what capabilities I need for delivery of IT in the new way. So you have to think not just about how you procure, but how you architect and what capabilities you need to actually deliver commodity cloud computing.”

Skills shortage

One issue of course is the skills shortage in-house in government. As so many commentators have noted, successive UK governments of all political hues have spent several decades outsourcing their skills base to third party services companies. Now the public sector wants them back, but it’s not a quick fix situation. McDonagh affirmed:

“We are short on skills. This is not just a central government issue, it's a local government issue and a private sector issue. We're all sort of grappling for the same types of capabilities and resources and there's not enough for everyone to go round.

“We recognize the problem in central government. We are working with Cabinet Office colleagues and thinking about how we get those types of resources not only to come back in house and work in government, but also how do we buy them in terms of services from the different types of frameworks that we can buy them from?”

The other issue is education. There has been a feeling around on both the buy and sell side of the public sector cloud community that since McDonagh stepped away from her role as head of the G-Cloud program, the level of outreach - I was told off by her for referring to it as evangelism! - and education about the benefits and challenges of public cloud has fallen off alarmingly.

Inevitably it’s a politically tricky one for her to answer, but on the subject of educating the public sector audience, she said:

“It is one of my big bug bears. The challenge is not about how to procure. The challenge is about how to become a proper buyer. How can I design and develop so that I buy properly. There is a huge lack of education there. We are recognizing that and are beginning to do a lot more.

“We have the Chief Technology Leadership group where CTOs across central government get together to talk about what our plans are and how we're doing and some of the challenges we have. It's about what are the challenges that face all central government departments.

“Although there is a lot of commonality between us there are some things that are a little bit different. We discuss things like architectural standards, data standards. We are beginning to set up sub-groups. They all need to mature a lot more. But the need has been identified. The groups and the people have been put in place. We just need to work through them.”

But she did add:

“But I would like to have seen a lot more education from the Cabinet Office to people who need to architect and buy solutions. I can understand some of the challenges with that but we could all benefit from a bit more education on how to buy. “

Verdict

Still a cloud champion - and still the best advocate for the G-Cloud program in the UK public sector.

The Home Office’s gain has been G-Cloud’s loss.

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