The Gallery: What’s Awaiting Government Executives in the Cloud?

In this edition of The Gallery, Accenture’s Stephen J. Rohleder discusses important risks and opportunities facing public sector leaders as they think about investing in cloud computing. Mr. Rohleder says that cost savings derived from the cloud will ensure wide use in government, but questions remain as to how well the technology will be leveraged.

Long foreshadowed under names such as “grid computing” and “network computing,” cloud computing is gaining momentum as one of the major trends that will reshape how governments use technology and manage IT challenges over the next 5-10 years. No leading government organization can ignore cloud computing, but at this point many are still near the beginning of serious efforts to understand its potential uses, costs and risks.

As with many technologies, the private sector is in many respects well ahead of government in seizing opportunities and assessing risks associated with cloud computing. There are abundant business examples of the wide and powerful range of cloud capabilities for governments to learn from, along with considerations unique to government such as: the potential impact on citizen services and efficiency of operations; political sensitivities about public agency data management; security/privacy/reliability requirements; agency and workforce cultures; and limits on flexibility caused by procurement policies.

So what are the fundamental questions government executives should be asking?

What is cloud computing and how does it work?

  • Cloud computing involves accessing computing capabilities through the Internet. Services provided range from raw computer infrastructure to complete processes and applications that can be purchased through Web interfaces and turned on and off as needed.
  • Basic cloud technologies are well-established and replicable to any organization, making it possible for governments to build private clouds that restrict access to approved organizations (e.g. departments, partner agencies, etc.).

What benefits can a cloud bring to my government organization?

  • The top benefits of cloud computing include reducing costs, increasing flexibility and increasing speed-to-market.
  • In addition cloud computing offers governments a range of potentially beneficial options such as greater cross-governmental and citizen access to information, the ability to develop applications using pre-approved cloud-based platforms, standardization of distinct data security controls and levels, a real-time competitive market for cloud services, and a greater ability to use data analytic techniques to detect errors and fraud.

How can government executives come to a timely, focused and productive evaluation of cloud computing?

  • Organizations need to look for ways to reduce costs and improve services that can be served by cloud computing, and understand cloud limits. For example, complex legacy IT systems are not good candidates for migration to a cloud.
  • Based on experiences from the commercial world, one of the greatest benefits of a cloud for governments will be enabling new processes, applications and services that had been too difficult or expensive to previously offer.
  • The integration of public and private cloud capabilities with legacy IT systems as part of the overall IT strategy is appropriate for most government cloud users. Cloud computing is not an “all or nothing” strategy.
  • Government executives need to look closely at return-on-investment business cases based on actual cloud usage, rather than basing decisions on estimates of anticipated savings. There will also likely be hidden management, transition and usage costs that need to be uncovered and assessed early and repeatedly in the decision-making process.

What about security and data privacy concerns?

  • These are the primary concerns for cloud implementers in government and in the private sector. But the reality is that IT systems often consist of highly fragmented landscapes of security and data privacy, carrying a high degree of risk and raising management cost.
  • Using a move to cloud computing to drive more consistency and automation in security and data privacy should be viewed as a potential catalyst for driving greater security and reduced costs of meeting security needs.
  • Government should always include security and data privacy capabilities of cloud services as a major part of the selection process; cloud data security is not a new and untested area, and potential providers should have advanced capabilities to ensure security, mitigate risk and map their approaches to any security mandates brought to them by potential cloud users in government.

Many government executives are beginning to grapple with cloud risks and opportunities and the costs of writing off current IT investments, while others have begun the transition to a hybrid of cloud and conventional computing. Certainly the capabilities and potential savings from clouds are too great to ignore. That is why the critical question has shifted from whether cloud computing will become a fundamental part of most IT operations (it will), to how successful will government players be in tapping cloud benefits and managing risks associated with this fast-growing element of the IT universe.

To read the Accenture report, “Six Questions Government Executives Should Ask About Cloud Computing,” click here.

Stephen J. Rohleder is group chief executive of the Accenture Health & Public Service operating group

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