Why we need a clearer picture on council cloud adoption

Local governments remain sheepish over the adoption of new technology, despite policy change

Local government is strapped for cash. Across the UK local authorities are shedding staff and cutting services, and perhaps at times like these, investment is the last thing on their minds.

But clever investment can reap rewards, as cloud services can increase efficiency and improve public access to information. It's also an essential component of anything falling under the heading of 'smart cities', and smart city initiatives themselves can save local government money while creating infrastructure and services fit for the 21st century.

So, what's stopping local authorities from doing more with cloud, and why should those who are lagging behind think again about their reluctance?

Whatever happened to Cloud First?

Back in 2013, the government introduced its Cloud First policy. This is based around a very clear statement that any new project should consider cloud first and foremost above all other solutions.

"When procuring new or existing services, public sector organisations should consider and fully evaluate potential cloud solutions first before considering any other option," the policy states. "This approach is mandatory for central government and strongly recommended to the wider public sector."

A recent Citrix report suggests progress towards a 'cloud first' policy is painfully slow, with 80% of councils still using on-premise infrastructure, either in isolation or together with a cloud service, to access and manage citizen data. Despite this, 75% of authorities said they were planning on investing in cloud over the next 12 months.

But that's not the full picture. The research was based on a Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to 80 local authorities across the UK, 50% of which responded. According to the Local Government Association, there are 418 unitary, upper and second tier councils in the UK, and, an LGA spokesperson told us that the FOI requests "represent only a tenth of local authorities across England and Wales" and that the research omits the fact that "various council departments have a statutory duty to use specific IT systems in order to carry out their functions".

An example of this can be found in adult social care where councils still use NHS Mail and N3, a private broadband network currently being phase out in favour of the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), to share patient data with the NHS.

However, Georgina Maratheftis, programme manager for local government at techUK, maintains that "there are lots of councils across the UK that are realising the benefits of adoption and using cloud services within their organisations," but that "there are a lot more that are not and should be looking to move to the cloud".

So what's the problem?

There is no one single reason that some councils aren't getting on board with cloud, but there are some fundamentals that can stand in the way of a transformation, and, indeed, of even thinking 'cloud first'.

Maratheftis says authorities face "difficulties in gaining the buy-in of senior leadership to see and understand the long and short-term benefits of cloud", and that many leaders become overly fixated on concerns around the change of working culture or overcoming the skills and capability barriers as a result of moving to new technology.

Ingrid Koehler, service innovation lead at the Local Government Information Unit, a London-based think tank and charity, argues that authorities should be forgiven for being a little sheepish.

"Local government is naturally risk-averse and even in good times may hesitate to innovate for perfectly rational reasons," says Koehler. "In times where finance is pressured, it can be even harder to invest in change and transformation even where savings can be calculated."

Crashing through the barriers

With the Cloud First strategy entering its fifth year, it's about time these barriers were overcome.

Operating through disparate systems is much less likely to afford councils a 'single view' of citizen data, making it tricky to provide joined-up services. Cloud services can combine both internal and public facing elements, such as helping to streamline both internal bureaucracy and public access to information.

"Local government needs to transform and use digital as a tool to both support transformation and shift thinking about how we can work with citizens and service users in a more agile way," says Koehler.

Intranets can be revolutionised, document collaboration finally removed from the clutches of clunky email shares, and even things as apparently dull as room booking can be transformed through access to cross-council, multi-site cloud systems.

Importantly, these possibilities can reduce the internal administration burden, which in itself frees up resources and money that could otherwise be used on other areas of councils' remit. That's essential given the estimated 5.8 billion funding gap that local authorities are expected to have to deal with over the next decade.

"The more progressive councils will see cloud as an opportunity to reimagine how future services can be delivered," says techUK's Maratheftis, "as well as gain value in reducing demand on services, improving efficiencies and enhancing the customer experience."

However, with the Cloud First strategy clearly having minimal impact, a change in culture may require more heavy-handed intervention from central government.

Image: Shutterstock

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