Public sector cloud looms, but who wants it?

Local gov CIO: 'What's this thing even for?'

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It appeared to fall off the radar for a while, but the plan for the G Cloud has gone back to the top of the government's IT agenda.

The intention to create a formal framework for the public sector procure cloud computing services was first floated in the Journey to Digital government paper in April 2009, remained prominent for a while but then slipped into the background, with the Cabinet Office saying little about its progress. A few organisations in local government have taken the leap into cloud services, but speculation grew that the central plan was being shelved.

This was quelled last week, when the department confirmed that it is close to launching a procurement for a short term framework – to last no longer than nine months – for services likely to cover infrastructure, platforms, software and cloud support services. It is very much a 'toe in the water' exercise, with the Cabinet Office aiming set up a longer term framework next year. The question is how many suppliers and public sector customers are ready to test the potential of the G Cloud?

The official line from the supply side is enthusiastic, with IT industry association Intellect expressing strong support for the move. Surreya Cansoy, its director public sector, says: "We see this as a radical change in the government's approach to adopting technology, offering exciting opportunities for innovative products and services to be delivered to the public sector. The industry has long championed the benefits that the cloud can bring as we believe it will open the doors to more flexible and lower cost solutions.

"The new cloud services framework should help make the whole system more open and flexible, enabling existing players to share their ideas and products with government and encouraging new suppliers to enter the market. Companies will benefit from faster purchasing decisions by government and government will be brought closer to innovative ideas."

But others question whether it will be attractive to public sector buyers, even those with a strong interest in the cloud. Chris Pennell, principal analyst for public sector IT intelligence specialist Kable, suggests there is no strong incentive in sight.

"The relaxed rules will place more onus on their ability to undertake a thorough due diligence in making sure a supplier can deliver on its promise, a process that can be lengthy and complicated," he says. "They will also be more cautious about any terms and conditions or service level agreements, given that most will be moving onto new ground.

"In addition, there is no sign of a marketing budget for the framework, or even any branding or communications strategy. Given that there is never a mandatory requirement to use such contracts, many organisations will be in no hurry to do so. Any that do are likely to use the framework as a test and therefore look for low volume services that are not critical to their business, while relying on their own procurements for cloud services that are more important.

"In the short term the framework could attract a few buyers to dip their toes in the water, but it would need reports of the experience and a more long term contract, probably with several of the regular features left out of this one, to attract any substantial use."

There is also some scepticism from one of the champions of cloud computing in local government. David Wilde, now chief information officer at Essex county council, launched a major transition to the use of cloud infrastructure in his previous position at Westminster city council. He has similar long term plans at Essex, but questions what local government in particular will get out of the G Cloud programme.

"Some of the cloud stuff on the market has been overhyped, especially around core desktop provision, and when you look at the G Cloud there are a couple of crucial questions," Wilde says.

"One is 'What is the relationship between the G Cloud and the PSN?' and I think it's still fudged. I get the PSN but don't get the G Cloud. Is it genuinely going to be a framework agreement to get us to procure cloud managed services without going through the full procurement? Or is it a recreation of Catalyst, not really taken up by local government because of its complexity and level of value for money?

"I don't see the answers yet. None of us want to spend a quarter of a million on a procurement, but it's got to be robust and competitive, and it's got to have a regard for the constitutional position of local authorities."

He points out that central government represents the crown while local government consists of constituted organisations whose power derives from elections, and says there is a danger that any framework set up to respond to the needs of the former could create legal problems for the latter.

The other question derives from the fact that local government is more of a vehicle for delivering services – in central government only HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions have the same direct contact with the public – and councils are exploring new methods of delivery, such as joint ventures and outsourcing. Wilde says it is unclear how the G Cloud could cater for these new modes of delivery.

"Tell me what the G Cloud is there to do?" Wilde says. "I would love to have that clarity come out of the Cabinet Office and Government Procurement Service."

Given that he has been one of the early enthusiasts for cloud, this suggests that few are likely to see the G cloud as the 'go to' source of services. It is likely to take time and one or two further frameworks before that becomes the case.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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