What does ‘perfect’ mean for public sector cloud amidst Covid-19?

Inevitably, this is a worrying and unprecedented time, with the government fighting to keep coronavirus at bay and the economy afloat. Still, as Arundhati Roy has said, the pandemic is a portal — the chance to imagine a better world. The need for the public sector to embrace the cloud and other technologies has long been discussed. Consisting of vital organisations that are still hugely reliant on legacy solutions and processes, most are aware of the benefits digitisation can bring. 87% agree that they’d move all of their IT systems to the cloud if the perfect solution existed. While this highlights the desire to move to a more cloud-based existence, it does also raise a couple of questions: why does this ‘perfect’ solution only seem to exist for a fraction of organisations? And what does ‘perfect’ even mean when thinking about the cloud?

Progressive technology was already high on the wishlists of many, and there’s no doubt that Covid-19 has further accelerated the need to embrace digital transformation. Take the NHS: it published its ‘Long Term Plan’ in January 2019, which set out how it would improve itself over the next decade — technology at the centre of efforts. In July the same year, NHSX was introduced, responsible for driving digital transformation throughout the organisation. The NHS was on a timeline — and then coronavirus happened.

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Accelerating change

Suddenly, years of digital transformation took place inside just a few months. Healthtech startups are supporting the UK public sector in a crisis, with a sharp demand for their services. Tender notices that would usually take months are now taking just days. Connected devices are now used to enable monitoring of patients’ vital signs in the home setting, more GPs are conducting appointments remotely, and almost every NHS trust has made it possible for both clinical and administrative staff to work from home by leveraging electronic records.

Technology has been at the forefront of the NHS’ response – but the effects of Covid-19 will last long after lockdown is eased, and the public sector will need to adapt further. Remote, decentralised workforces will require new measures that enable them to deliver services securely from wherever they reside – and cloud computing will be core to transformation within the public sector.

Overcoming the obstacles

A lot of hesitation concerning cloud adoption stems from costs — or, rather, a potential lack of control over it. There’s a fear that, once implemented, initial investments are dwarfed by ongoing variable costs as tools are scaled. Also hindering internal buy-in are the challenges around budgeting OPEX and CAPEX, with the former usually attached to public cloud deployments, and the latter on-premises or private cloud. For organisations that have adopted the cloud in some capacity, controlling expenditure has led to the adoption of cloud repatriation and specialist cost-optimisation products.

While many public sector leaders accept that delivering improved services will ultimately come down to widespread cloud adoption, another challenge is changing the culture within organisations to enable technology and those using it to flourish. However, a lack of internal resources, cloud-native skills, mindsets and processes are making leaders hesitant to commit.

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An issue is that many organisations are managed in the traditional top-down, command-and-control style, while agile cloud development lends itself to a more collaborative setup. As such, attracting the right skills involves a deeper reflection on how organisations operate. This is where the value of partnering with a trusted provider becomes apparent, as this brings access not only to the right technology, but also a supportive team of analysts and experts who can help plug any skills gaps remotely.

Safeguarding security

Concerns around security also remain. Data is a national asset, and it’s right that public sector organisations want to keep it secure — but that shouldn’t mean avoiding tools that can add huge value because they aren’t fully understood. Attitudes are changing; just a few years ago, it would’ve been inconceivable for some of the Police National Computer’s workloads to take place in the cloud, as it does now. Still, more education needs to be provided. Apprehensions around vendor lock-in, incompatibility with other solutions and working with a sole partner can be alleviated through multi-cloud deployments, and any potential loss in visibility can be addressed through in-cloud instrumentation which enhance data management.

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Ultimately, Covid-19 has created uncertain times that have required the public sector to think differently about how it approaches technology. We’ve seen a number of examples of red tape being cut and hesitation being overcome in order to deliver better services during this time, but more needs to be done for digital adoption to be more widespread. The public sector is a community, all with different wants and needs, meaning it’s clear that a single cloud can never be the ‘perfect solution’.

Different organisations will require a mixture of clouds to suit their particular requirements around budget, skills, pace of change and security. To create meaningful change, then, there needs to be a dedicated effort to explain the various cloud setups in order for decision-makers to fully grasp how the technology can be beneficial to them. For many, waiting for the perfect cloud will be akin to waiting for Godot; there’ll be plenty of conversations, but it’ll never show.

In fact, cloud is arguably the unsung hero when it comes to powering the nation’s health. The value of life-changing data can’t be unlocked if it’s stored insecurely or can’t be transmitted easily. Technologies like telemedicine and artificial intelligence are all helping to curb the spread of coronavirus in the UK, so it’s crucial that the infrastructure needed to support this isn’t overlooked. Core technologies such as the cloud are the first step to changing lives – it’s just about being bold enough to take the plunge.

Written by Leighton James, CTO of UKCloud

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