A few weeks ago I spoke at an event organised by Oracle focussed on how the public sector uses the cloud. I talked about why we are committed to the cloud, how this commitment has changed how we think about technology, and what we plan to do next. I spoke alongside my Government Digital Service (GDS) colleague Iain Patterson, who updated attendees on the work of Common Technology Services (CTS).
The Cloud First policy
In 2013, the Cloud First policy set out government plans to focus technology commitments on where it can most add value. This put an end to the government running its own data centres, and sometimes running its own software.
The policy (part of the overall Technology Code of Practice) reflected a change of thinking. For a range of crucial components, we can now clearly think about what we need from technology and consume them as products and commodities, rather than build or buy the entire stack as custom pieces.
We can now work flexibly, separating services so they can be defined in ways even computers understand (APIs). We use resources elastically, summoning them when we need them, and paying for them on a utility basis (based on the number of users we have or the amount of processing we're doing). Cloud First means less of our time is focussed on procurement negotiation and complex licensing, and more on making our tools robust and responsive.
The cloud reduces the time and cost to get something up and running, making change easier and empowering our people to experiment with new tools and approaches.
Change is constant for us, whether it’s changing user needs, a growing understanding of how to meet them, or the wider landscape of changing challenges and opportunities. It’s our responsibility as technologists to minimise the cost of change so that our teams can continually iterate services.
Clarity around system components
Too often we use the wrong labels and concepts when discussing the technology that powers our services. In thinking about what we want from cloud we need to do better.
Software engineers are trained to talk about very low-level building blocks at the library or microservice level. Meanwhile it’s still too common to find discussions taking place around around large, monolithic concepts like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and case management. This dichotomy in terms reflects the problems with the old fashioned business process design approach.
Even though there’s inherent confusion surrounding software labels in this traditional approach to procurement, the products have to be bought anyway. Complicated compromises have to be made between the functionality of large pieces of software, the cost of customising it, and how to effectively meet user needs. We are locked into a vendor and have to spend a lot of money on configuration.
New practices let us think more flexibly. Being clear about how our systems break down into components let's us understand how we can use utility and commodity elements and where we should be innovating ourselves. API-enabled software as a service let’s us blend off the shelf components into broader systems using common standards, with a clear understanding of where canonical data lives.
We can make smarter use of what the market offers, and develop the talent, understanding and experience in our own teams. We also have a far richer toolbox than we've ever had before to respond to rapidly changing user expectations.
Our future plans
Over the next few months we'll refresh the Cloud First policy and do more to share existing good practice. For example, we’ll work with our colleagues in security and across government to improve our security advice and do more to make sure that the changes are clearly communicated to the right people.
The Cloud Security Principles were a big step, but it's clear that worked examples will make them more valuable. We've still got lots of myths to bust and best practice to share, to prove that most of the time public cloud is at least as secure as your own hosting.
We’ll also be updating and reviewing the range of tools that we can promote to help departments make the transition. Crown Hosting has helped many departments reduce their datacentre commitments and get a better understanding of what they have and will remain crucial, but not every journey to the cloud is the same and there are a huge range of tools and techniques out there to help.
We’re refreshing our approach to Open Standards, making sure we can identify, select and contribute to standards even more flexibly than before. We need to be clearer with the market about what open standards we expect to see, and share our needs with the groups developing new standards.
We'll be providing more clarity for civil servants and the market about what we think good looks like for different types of cloud use. There's huge variation in the maturity of Software as a Service applications and often that's good. It's evidence of a fast moving, innovative marketplace. But it's important we're clear about what we need from the market so we can have the right interfaces, the right security, and simplicity for users.
We're bringing colleagues from across government together to look at some of our core business processes and the tools that support them. Over the past few years there's been a lot of smart thinking, but it's time for much sharper language and thinking about how we label things, what common components can make things more efficient and so on.
The changes in the technology market over the past few years are incredibly exciting. We’re aiming to ensure that the work we do in this area is helpful not just to accelerate our work in government but also to contribute back to the growing field of knowledge about how best to use the tools we now have at our disposal and what they can help us achieve.
Fundamentally, we're talking about Cloud because we believe that the change it represents is a huge opportunity to put more focus on meeting users' needs, more rapidly, more flexibly and more effectively.
We would like to hear about any obstacles you have encountered in making the transition to the cloud. Your comments will help us develop our work. Contact the Technology Group or comment below.