Cloud Society: the public sector slowly moves with the times

Government processes are glacially slow and the move to cloud will be no exception - but it will come

While Software as a Service may not be the answer to life, the universe and everything, it does excel in a number of specific places. To take two of these in particular, SaaS is very quick to get going: the low cost of entry, coupled with the minimal installation overhead, compared to deploying an in-house application, make it ideal to suit specific needs being treated as a one-off.

For smaller software vendors, the model is attractive for much the same reasons. A company can build an application on top of a business-class hosted back-end (such as Amazon Elastic compute cloud, Google App Engine or Microsoft Azure) and start delivering services to customers much more easily than 'the old way'. In other words, SaaS makes it quicker and easier for both provider and customer to get value from whatever service is being offered.

For smaller deployments, the net result should be cheaper as well, what with overheads of procurement, administration and resilience being taken care of. In these harsh times, the model looks spot-on for cash-strapped organisations to benefit from the functionality they need, as and when they need it. Not least government departments, which have to keep the country running whatever the economic backdrop. 

This all sounds good - the only trouble is that central government has not, traditionally, had a great track record with procurement. Big departments have tended to buy from big companies, for the simple reason that the overhead of responding to the still-onerous tendering process remains too great.

A number of initiatives are underway to make things simpler - both for smaller companies to tender for business in general, and (in the shape of G-Cloud and its associated Application Store) for smaller SaaS companies to get a foot in the door. "With our ability to innovate and provide value for money services, the government sees SME's as key players in the new Government ICT market economy," says John Glover, sales & marketing director for SaaS-based collaboration software company INOVEM.

The way the model is being constructed offers good news for both SMEs and their public sector customers, thinks Glover. "The G-Cloud initiative will, in the new year, deliver a totally transparent market place for pre-accredited cloud-based applications and services. To avoid vendor lock-in, the government has stipulated that the maximum contract term allowed is one year. Pay-per-use services, such as INOVEM's e-collaboration system, are likely to be billed monthly on actual usage rather than the more traditional multi-year enterprise-wide licensing contracts."

Even if the tender process is drastically simplified however, public organisations using the frameworks also need to be a bit more slick in terms of how they decide the facilities they need.

This requires a change in mindset from the perspective of both specifiers and procurers, as well as a better understanding of risk attitude when it comes to buying services, says Glover. "It is widely known that to play safe many public sector ICT projects are over-specified, resulting in time delays and unnecessary costs. To de-risk procurement and service selection, the Cabinet Office is encouraging SaaS suppliers to offer try-before-you-buy trials and has mandated documented "simple" and "quick" exit processes to enable customers to move to a different supplier."

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will central government suddenly change hundreds of years of learned behaviour for the sake of saving a few short-term pennies. However the new models bring new options for IT service delivery which, for the services concerned at least, enable procurement timescales to be reduced and therefore efficiency savings to be had.

Glover, for one, is positive about the opportunity to level the playing field. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to sell via the new Application Store for Government and for our services to be transparently rated by our public sector customers," he says.

While new challenges will undoubtedly emerge, it's all steps in the right direction. 

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