Government cloud needs a big stick!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 4, 2013
If you're in UK central government you're now going to need a damn good reason not to be using public cloud. But does the Cloud First mandate go far enough?




The cause of cloud computing in the UK public sector has taken an interesting turn with the formal acceptance of a Cloud First mandate across Whitehall.

But, commendable as this is, is it enough?

It's certainly a step in the right direction.

The US government introduced its own Cloud First mandate early on in the first Obama administration with then Federal CIO Vivek Kundra - now working at as Executive Vice-President of Emerging Markets - given presidential backing to impose the policy on what at times was a highly resistant government CIO community.

In the UK, the government's policy has to date been much more carrot and less stick. It's been about laying out benefits of the cloud in a age of austerity across a sector with a frankly abysmal reputation for failed - and wasteful - ICT programmes.

Show them what can be done with the cloud to make it different and a quiet revolution will take place, has been the underlying mindset it seems.

Or rather it has in most places. At the top of the G-Cloud programme, both current programme director Denise McDonagh and her predecessor Chris Chant have long argued the case for the Cloud First approach to be introduced.

Not everyone agreed though. At the Business Cloud Summit in London late last year, I was interested to pick up on what looked to be a mild schism at the top of government with McDonagh on the one hand openly advocating the mandate approach but government Chief Technology Officer Liam Maxwell seemingly reluctant to go down this route.

Very necessary 

To my mind, the Cloud First mandate has long been an absolutely necessity. McDonagh may be a force of nature in her own right, but there is only one of her and she's already splitting her G-Cloud responsibilities with her other role as CIO at the Home Office.

Chant - who's now retired to France - recently reminded us all that in the early planning stages the G-Cloud team was to be around 20 people strong.

In the event, it's boiled down to five individuals, all hugely dedicated and inspired, but most of whom are, like McDonagh, part-time on the programme.

In that context, the achievements of the G-Cloud programme to date - £18 million of recorded sales to date and a hugely healthy pipeline ahead - should be rightly lauded.

But there's a huge cultural resistance to change to be overcome - both from buyers and sellers of public sector ICT, as seen both here and earlier in the US - and the best efforts of five people to evangelise the necessary paradigm shifts was always going to be an uphill battle.

Sticks and carrots

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has been more than happy to take a big stick approach when it comes to renegotiating contract terms with the sell side; the time to put a bit of stick about on the buy side has been long overdue.

In the event, McDonagh's view has prevailed with Maude formally announcing that from now on all central government procurements must evaluate a cloud solution as a first preference and will be obliged to come up with some compelling reasons why they didn't choose a cloud solution if that's the route they insist on taking.

Maude - who's shaping himself a decent reputation as an ICT procurement reformer who's taken a direct and personal involvement in pushing through changes to bad 'best' practice - says:

“Many government departments already use G-Cloud, but IT costs are still too high. One way we can reduce them is to accelerate the adoption of Cloud across the public sector maximise its benefits. The Cloud First policy will embed the skills a modern civil service needs to meet the demands of 21st-century digital government and help us get ahead in the global race.”

Good, but...

All of this is good, but I do still have some reservations. It's good as far as it goes, but it could go a lot further. I've got three main areas of concern:

The dog ate my homework!
We will undoubtedly now see a lot of 'creative thinking' from the more luddite elements on the buy side along the lines of Cloud First being fine for everyone else, expect for them of course as their needs are so very different. This will - with a few notable exceptions - be self-deceiving nonsense and will need to be policed very carefully.

How big's this stick going to be?
The success of the Cloud First mandate will be very dependent on just how hard that stick is going to come down on the knuckles of those who don't want to follow the new policy. If there's no bite to go with the bark, then the chances of it being taken seriously will be undermined. I'd imagine we're going to need at least one very open humiliation of a public sector organisation to emphasise that the Cabinet Office does mean business here. The political will meets the administrative won't - game on!

There's a wider world out there!
This mandate only extends to central government organisations. The rest of the public sector - local government, the NHS, the police, the BBC etc - will still be eyeing up the carrots and coming to their own conclusions. The theory of course is that as they look at successes in the likes of the Ministry of Justice, they'll come to their own realisation that this is a good idea and fall into line in their own time. Good theory. Will it work in practice? We shall have to wait and see.

But it's a start. It's definitely a start. And as the lock-in deals with the vendor oligopoly begin to wind down next year, it's come not a moment too soon.


diginomica will be attending the Think G-Cloud conference in London on 18th June. Public sector professionals can register free of charge here.  

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