Shifting clouds

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 5 February 2014 in Feature
Feature

The G-Cloud promises to bring efficiencies and cost savings to central government. But how easy is it to buy from the cloud? A recent roundtable explored the issue, as Tim Gibson reports.

The benefits of adopting cloud-based technologies are increasingly widely accepted across government: it offers the potential for cost-savings and process efficiencies as well as the opportunity to support flexible ways of working. To help government adopt cloud technologies, the G-Cloud programme has set up an e-portal of cloud services, Cloudstore, populated by a central framework which is renewed every six months.

Departments are encouraged to buy ‘off the shelf’ from this central store, which is about to be redesigned to increase capacity and widen the range of features if offers. This is a very new approach to procurement for most departments, and the extent to which cloud services are taken up across government depends, in part, on the extent to which civil servants are confident in this process.

With this in mind, CSW teamed up with cloud services specialist Skyscape to convene a round table that examined the best ways to procure from the CloudStore. The event provoked a lively discussion and the resulting conclusions will be food for thought as the GDS team designs the CloudStore replacement.

Defining the Cloud

Although the focus of this round table wasn’t principally on the technology side of the G-Cloud, Skyscape’s chief executive officer Phil Dawson began with a helpful summary of the concept, and the ways it can drive out costs. The cloud “provides an opportunity to drive out cost by economies of scale on the supply side, through use of massive data centre campuses and shared platforms [that] reduce unit costs.” On the demand side, cost per users is reduced because more than one tenant will normally use these shared platforms so there is good use of the assets which suppliers have invested in.

“[From] the procurement side,” he continued, “the G-Cloud means standardised products that reduce costs. [Sellers] put a service description on [the CloudStore] and state the price. This information is available to all buyers, which drives competition and reduces costs, [thanks to] standard procurement contracts and common security accreditation.” Frank Tudor, head of IT procurement in the Department for Work and Pensions, likened it to an “Argos catalogue”, in so far as a range of ICT products and services is available with published prices, and government buyers are required to choose the ones that best suit their needs.

Here lies the first major difficulty that users have encountered with the buying from the G-Cloud framework: it does not live up to its promise of price transparency. For example, Leilah Williams, senior strategic contract manager at the Office for National Statistics, reported: “My experience of the CloudStore is that pricing on it doesn’t mean anything. It depends on how you build [a system as to how it is priced]. Some suppliers don’t fill in values – so you end up having to contact them for a quotation, [anyway].”

Skyscape’s Phil Dawson was quick to point out that this situation shouldn’t arise, not least because any renegotiation on price should be reflected back to the whole buying community through updated information on the CloudStore. Even so, as Frank Tudor reflected, “should is the key word. In my opinion, there is too much ambiguity in service descriptions and pricing [on the CloudStore]. There are very few providers who you can go to and understand exactly what you’re getting.”

Another example of the dissonance between the CloudStore ideal and its reality is that procurements do not seem to take any less time when done through the G-Cloud than when conducted in traditional ways. For example, Yasmin Crossland, data exploitation service improvement manager at DWP, described a situation where she had tried to procure from the CloudStore but was advised by her commercial team to follow the existing process, on the basis that the G-Cloud route would not be any quicker.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that procurement specialists do not yet understand the CloudStore, so are reluctant to make use of it. Sarah Braun, head of digital internal communications at UK Trade and Investment, had encountered this difficulty, and said, “the biggest challenge [for our procurement officers] was that G-Cloud was new and they were used to traditional methods.”

To solve this, Braun and her colleagues ended up pursuing a “hybrid” approach to procurement, where a traditional tendering process ran alongside procurement from the CloudStore. It wasn’t, she admitted, “pure cloud” – but at least it was an attempt to adopt the new way of working.

Trusting the system

It goes without saying that any organisational change meets with resistance. This is especially the case in public sector ICT, where old habits die hard. But Skyscape’s commercial director Nicky Stewart said it was just a question of building trust in the G-Cloud, so that commercial specialists and technologists can come to see its benefits. “Once [people] trust the framework,” she said, “and believe that it is OJEU-compliant, [they will realise that] you can get to contract in hours, if not minutes, and infrastructure can be deployed on the same day. So it is much quicker than [the government] is used to, and can be totally transformational.”

Stewart’s point highlighted a further reservation that some expressed about the G-Cloud, concerning its legality. This is an indication of the gestalt switch it heralds in government procurement. While departments are used to buying from frameworks, they would usually carry out their own lengthy tender process to chose between the approved suppliers. Now they are effectively buying 'off the shelf' and must rely entirely on the legality and quality of the framework rather than their own tendering process. It’s another facet of the need to trust the CloudStore – and this is something that many in the public sector continue to struggle with.

It’s not hard to see why, when you consider the experiences that some have had in trying to buy from the CloudStore. For example, Ian Charlton, enterprise architect in HM Passport Office, said that he had some experience of suppliers not being able to provide the services they said they could in their CloudStore listing, which led him to worry about due diligence in the process.

A further concern has to do with complexity of terms and conditions terms and conditions on the CloudStore, as part of the standardisation process. This means that where a supplier’s own terms differ from those of the G-Cloud, the latter always trump the former. And as Warren Towns, a technology solutions analyst in HM Treasury and Cabinet Office, remarked, most public sector buyers will want detailed reassurances of the supplier’s awareness and acceptance of this.

The drive to standardise

The average supplier could be forgiven for arguing that resistance to standardisation is more likely to reside on the client side than within the supply chain. After all, as Granville Gordon, ICT services manager in the Cabinet Office, observed: “Every government department sees itself as unique”. That pulls against the centralised approach which underpins the G-Cloud, because each buyer will want to specify requirements to match their precise needs.

The DWP’s Frank Tudor offered a stringent rebuttal of this mindset, arguing that public sector procurers should treat the G-Cloud as a market. “If you don’t like [what a supplier is offering],” he reflected, “then find a different supplier.” This puts the onus on the government workforce to take responsibility for buying decisions, and to ensure ICT products and services are chosen that are fit for purpose. But this responsibility has traditionally been devolved to the private sector, thanks to the Systems Integrator (SI) model that has dominated public sector ICT for many years, and which some departments remain locked into.

Under the G-Cloud, the idea of a large commercial contractor managing every aspect of a department’s ICT needs has been lost. Instead, the department itself has the responsibility to manage the component parts of its ICT provision – and that means the buck stops very firmly in-house.

There are two immediate implications of this: the first being that there is no one else to blame for a systems failure, and the second, as Sarah Braun from UKTI noted, that the government needs to ensure its personnel have the necessary skills to avoid such failures, and transition effectively away from the SI model when the time comes.

Finding solutions, developing skills

One of the most important skills that government workers will have to develop is managing the SME community, which features prominently on the G-Cloud frameworks. As Ian Charlton from the Passport Office remarked, “Many SMEs are not used to dealing with the government, and do not provide the large technical documents that we require, or understand our security needs. So we are assuring a design on less information, and need to guide SMEs through the process.”

For this reason and many others, the government needs to invest in its workforce to make the G-Cloud a success. But Philippa Benfield, senior policy advisor in the Cabinet Office, highlighted the need to balance the cost of such up-skilling against the projected savings of the G-Cloud, so that the two don’t cancel each other out.

The HR cost of the transition is reflected in the fact that the majority of procurements through the CloudStore to date have been for strategic advisors, as departments seek expert guidance on the best way to move into the cloud. To help minimise this expense, the Government Procurement Service and Government Digital Service should step up their efforts to advise departments about the process. Moreover, as Granville Gordon from the Cabinet Office remarked, they need to speak with a “single voice” in order to ensure consistency in their messaging.

At the heart of the whole discussion was a tacit acknowledgment that the the shift to cloud is not simply a technological revolution. It also requires a revolution in public sector attitudes towards procurement and working practices. That makes it essential to educate people about the benefits of the cloud, in order to raise awareness of its benefits. This point was made by both Malcolm Jay, a transport modeller in the Department for Transport, and Margaret Adams, a digital by default champion in the Ministry of Justice, as they called for more opportunities to share insights and experience among colleagues.

Allied to improvements in the CloudStore catalogue, including a focus on making it more user-friendly and ensuring the information listed by suppliers is accurate, the roundtable participants agreed that the very activity in which they were engaged would be critical to the G-Cloud’s success. Having opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences would, they concluded, be extremely valuable as the G-Cloud initiative gathers pace.

As such, the G-Cloud is likely to stay on the CSW roundtable agenda for a long time to come. And if this discussion is anything to go by, it may be worth keeping a space in your diary for the next one.

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