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Councils set for ‘cloud computing’

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The new cross-government IT strategy, announced recently by government chief information officer John Suffolk, has far-reaching aims and lofty ambitions.

It wants to help transform the public sector into something more like Amazon or Tesco than the sprawling bureaucracy many customers associate with the civil service, and it wants to make the internet an integral part of public service provision.

The strategy is aimed not just at central government departments, but at all parts of the public sector.

Companies will increasingly replace their older systems with cloud-based IT, and public sector IT leaders seem to agree

Rebecca Thomson

For years there has been plenty of talk and some action on shared services - where councils share the use of business systems in departments such as human resources and finance. Now this strategy aims to encourage more decisive action by ramping up the momentum behind the idea.

It will also help public sector organisations continue to move their transactions and services online, building and improving on the work that has already been done.

Many in the private sector say that the use of ‘cloud computing’, where organisations use an internet-based IT infrastructure, is set to reach a tipping point in 2010 and 2011. Companies will increasingly replace their older systems with cloud-based IT, and public sector IT leaders seem to agree.

Government Cloud

One of the strategy’s main plans is to introduce a Government Cloud, which will allow councils to host business systems on the shared infrastructure.

Also planned is a communications network that is public sector-wide, a government applications store, and a scheme to reduce the number of public sector data centres from hundreds to 12. Overall, the strategy aims to save £3.2bn a year by 2014.

The ideas sound appealing, but how easy will it be to roll them out across the entire public sector?

At the moment organisations can opt in or out of the strategy. The government’s CIO Council doesn’t have the authority to dictate policy but a recent Institute of Government report said that is what might be needed if large-scale IT projects such as this one are to succeed.

“It’s an excellent idea but there needs to be more central authority with policies like this one, because it doesn’t just happen,” says one senior IT manager.

But both John Suffolk and Jos Creese, chief information officer at Hampshire County Council and chair of the Local Public Service CIO Council, say they expect councils to sign up - both say they expect the obvious value of the scheme to appeal to council executives.

Needs of councils

The strategy document has little mention of local government, and Mr Creese says work is ongoing to shape the initiative around the needs of councils.

“My main priority is to help John Suffolk shape the strategy so it’s as applicable as possible to local government, rather than something that’s designed around central government and is difficult to apply,” he says. He adds that it is too early to know the detailed implications of the strategy for councils.

Other chief information officers welcome the strategy, saying there will be plenty of benefits in store if it is implemented. But they are also unsure about how well implementation will go.

Steve Palmer, chief information officer at Hillingdon LBC and president of the Society of Information Technology Management, says: “There are lots of things in there that we welcome, but it’s really focusing on the technology. I would have liked to have seen an emphasis on selling the value of technology to the business as a way of balancing the books.”

Winning hearts and minds

He says that one of the biggest issues IT has is winning the hearts and minds of service managers, and that while the new strategy offers good ideas for ways of buying technology, it doesn’t address this problem.

Selling the value of IT to chief executives has always been one of the technology sector’s biggest challenges

Rebecca Thomson

“If central government is going to perform the leadership role it seems to want to do, it has to cover more than how technology is sourced. I think there’s a lack of understanding of the value that their promotion of IT can give,” he says.

But he adds that it is in “everyone’s interests” to help implement the strategy.

David Wilde, chief information officer at Westminster City Council, also welcomes the ideas in the document as being potentially beneficial to local government, but says the details need to be worked through. “One question is how this strategy is going to engage with service delivery to the public,” he says.

Selling the value of IT to chief executives has always been one of the technology sector’s biggest challenges, and this doesn’t look likely to change with the government’s latest ideas.

Rebecca Thomson, reporter Computer Weekly

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