How the cloud can help drive innovation in government

Insight

Top tier cloud computing providers like AWS are tailoring their services for the public sector. Can a new age of Agile infrastructure help governments innovate at a faster rate, and leave behind their reputation for high-cost project failures? Only if accompanied by changes in procurement practices and culture.

Services tailored for the public sector are rapidly becoming a de facto standard of the cloud computing landscape. Providers like AWS are climbing over themselves to land some of the biggest fish in the data processing pond with add-ons, assurances and additional services for this risk-averse audience.

For example, data security is usually the first concern raised by government clients. AWS has taken a number of steps to address this requirement, aligning their services to the documented standards for the Canadian Government, as well as for the UK G-Cloud. They’ve also developed relevant services such as Secure Network Connections, which came out of their experiences of working with the USA Government.

Moving out of the basement with Agile infrastructure

Utilization of AWS allows government entities to more rapidly pioneer new digital service innovations, such as the DVLA’s MOT service that processes 42 million transactions annually, and the Commercial Vehicle Operator licence.

Niall Creech, Head of Cloud Engineering at the Ministry of Justice, provides this excellent case study of the type of benefits that can be won by government agencies adopting cloud technology, documenting their move to the AWS Cloud as shifting to Government at Scale.

Niall makes the point that in today’s IT world, there is little value to be had in operating traditional data centres any more. Moving to the cloud represents “moving out of the basement”.

It’s not simply a process of outsourcing or, in other words, transferring the same technology paradigm from in-house to an external supplier, but of harnessing an entirely new paradigm altogether.

The especially powerful effect of this approach is that it greatly lowers the cost and risk of experimentation.

The case study offers a very articulate definition of how the cloud provides an ‘Agile infrastructure’.

Instead of just migrating the same virtual servers to IaaS, Niall describes how they have embraced Cloud Native building blocks, such as containerized applications, serverless functions and elastic storage, to make possible more dynamic, more agile provisioning and management of IT infrastructure. For example, all live services can cope with any of their servers being destroyed without notice, with no alerts and no user impact.

Innovation through transforming procurement, and culture

Speaking at the AWS summit, Mark Schwartz (Twitter) sets the broader organisational context for these trends, challenging the core idea that you can’t innovate in large-enterprise Federal Government.

He defines the core measurement relevant to this goal: speed, or the lead time from realizing there is a mission need to deploying the required capability. Cloud speeds up that deployment and reduces that time cycle.

More importantly, Mark has been considering the broader organisational challenges and how they can be overcome to unleash the unused potential for expanded innovation in the public sector. His focus has been transforming procurement and, subsequently, culture too.

Highlighting that some procurement initiatives can take years, or even decades to complete, Mark says the way to address this systemic slowness of procurement and change-control bureaucracies, is to transform them using these cloud ideals.

At United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), they have put in place a continuous delivery system that is always in operation, applying automated testing and public cloud provisioning to all the code that is fed in. This enables them to work with a much higher frequency of smaller volumes of new system requirements, and be in a continual state of deploying these new features to production. In short, it enables them to work at a higher rate of innovation. The especially powerful effect of this approach is that it greatly lowers the cost and risk of experimentation.

As a consequence, everyone across the organisation can be encouraged to be more innovative, to try out new ideas by putting in the code requests and spinning up the prototype applications.

The public sector is notorious costly project failures. So it’s no surprise that risk aversion can be a major blocker to driving innovative change. By lowering the price of failure, and visibly setting a cultural tone of encouraged experimentation, these systemic dynamics can be addressed and a enterprise-wide culture of innovation unleashed.