Since as far back as Sir Peter Gershon’s review of public sector spending in 2005, the UK public sector has been looking at how it can best provide technology services which can be shared amongst groups that have the same basic requirements, so reducing functional redundancy, lowering costs around hardware, licensing and support and enabling more centralised capabilities for reporting and information sharing.
Movement has been somewhat slow – well, on the whole, glacially slow. A few shared services were implemented, but the massive savings promised failed to materialise.
In 2009, Sir John Suffolk (then the Government’s CTO) proposed a private government cloud system, termed the G-Cloud, that would provide a platform for a new generation of shared services. However, discussions became bogged down, with political in-fighting and the recession seeming ready to finally bury any chance of the G-Cloud becoming reality.
However, my view was that G-Cloud had to happen, as the costs of remaining with the outdated, under-functional systems already in place would be higher than the cost of implementing and running a proper cloud-based public sector platform. However, we were not going to hold our breath, as the change of government in 2010 led to a strategy of deep cuts.
In steps Francis Maude as Cabinet Office minister, and a new document around plans for the G-Cloud was delivered in 2010 that looked as if it made sense. The “new” G-Cloud would embrace more options, providing not just shared services across the public sector, but also be the platform for delivering information and services to the general public.
Not only would existing large IT service companies such as Capita and CSC, that already work with the UK public sector, be involved with the project, but smaller, possibly more nimble companies would also be involved to try and provide greater price and functional competition. However, we still refused to hold our breath – good plans may be there in abundance, but funding would still be a difficulty, surely?
However, money has been found and the first fruits of this latest initiative have been announced. CloudStore (previously known as the Government Application Store – or GAS, which was seen to be a possible problem as the press could make fun with such an acronym) is the government’s self-provisioning system that provides access to over 1,700 services from over 250 providers, large and small.
The G-Cloud is looking as if it is finally coming good – and it looks like the money has been made available based on a longer-term benefit analysis between staying with existing systems and moving to G-Cloud, rather than just the up-front cost of implementing G-Cloud.
Finally, the public sector has a means of rapidly purchasing technical services without the all the bureaucracy of dealing with the public sector purchasing departments from first thought through to delivery. All the services are pre-agreed, and the pricing and terms and conditions are all available directly for the departments and groups to see.
By centralising such purchasing through CloudStore, the government hopes that departments and groups will no longer try and side-step the IT procurement process by purchasing and expensing through departmental or personal credit cards leading to islands of information (with inherent security problems) being set up through ad-hoc usage of external services.
By making CloudStore easy, open and centralised, the public sector should be able to wield its massive scale to ensure that the best licence deals are obtained, and that information resources are all made available for mining and reporting against so that better decisions can also be made.
I like the idea of CloudStore – the public sector now has to embrace it and ensure that it does use it, and that it also feeds back to the centre ways that G-Cloud itself can be improved upon and used for greater efficiencies and effectiveness across public sector bodies and also in citizen engagement.
CloudStore should also be a wake-up call to suppliers who have shied away from dealing with the public sector previously, due to the perceived (and oft-times real) issues of dealing with such an expensive purchasing process. Getting onto CloudStore may still be difficult, but once on, you are there, on the page, available for the public sector to use and pay for directly without the need for protracted dealings with different purchasing departments.
The main remaining issue is that current coalition government’s term of office is now approaching its half-way point. As the next election nears, it is possible that further, deeper cost savings will have to be identified. This could cut off further investments into G-Cloud, which would be a bad thing for the public sector and for tax payers. I will continue to watch and will report as it sees what happens.