By Colin Marrs

06 Oct 2016

Once a traditional reluctance to share data has been overcome, the use of cloud technology can radically change how Whitehall operates. Colin Marrs listened in as some of the civil service’s top officials gathered for a round table on that very topic

Ironically, one of the biggest impediments to cloud adoption within government is the legacy of an incident from the analogue age. In 2007, two CDs sent via courier by HMRC – containing the details of 25 million child benefit claimants, got lost in the post. The ensuing scandal has left an indelible mark on the psyche of civil servants, many of whom have since adopted a “no risk” attitude to data.

However, Stephen Hardwick, director of corporate communications at HM Revenue & Customs, pointed out the advantages of cloud computing over the data storage methods of the previous era. “With cloud,” he said, “you are not physically moving stuff around. I know there are physical bits at the end of it, but we don’t need to interact with those. For us, it’s a win, win, win, pretty much everywhere.”

In addition, the move away from monolithic large-scale contracts with the private sector provides an extra layer of resilience for vital government operations. Hardwick pointed to the example of recent flooding which affected the basement of HMRC’s Shipley office.

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He said: “If we were still in the old environment where we hadn’t already started to use the cloud, all of the money that was coming into the government through HMRC wouldn’t be going anywhere because all of our servers were under water. We wouldn’t have been able to bank and the government would have run out of money within days. However, we had already moved a proportion of our stuff onto the cloud, which gave us a faster start-up.”

Smaller, shorter contracts also allow suppliers to work more closely with civil servants to adapt cloud technology to meet the needs of individual departments, according to Stephen Long, EVP at KCOM.

Drawing on recent experience, Long said: “Close working relationships between KCOM and officials with varying levels of technical ability allows an interesting transfer of skills. We can bring along methodologies and tools that we have used successfully in the past, share them, and work to make sure that we architect systems to get the best out of the cloud. That is very different to what you saw traditionally and a much more agile way of working.”

“There’s this element around breaking down the barriers through real-time collaboration, and that is absolutely unprecedented,” Julian Harris, head of technology and innovation at the Department for Work and Pensions

Civil servants who are prepared to make the leap to the cloud can radically transform traditional methods of working within and between departments, according to Julian Harris, head of technology and innovation at the Department for Work and Pensions. “There’s this element around breaking down the barriers through real-time collaboration, and that is absolutely unprecedented,” he said.

He went on: “Last week there was a request for comment on a public standards document and we had collaboration from five different departments and about 40 comments on this document within an hour and we had the issue resolved. The real-time aspect that cloud enables is mind-blowing.”

Harris pointed to tools such as Google Docs and Microsoft 365 as off-the shelf products which can allow such collaboration. Andy Beale, chief technology officer at the Government Digital Service (GDS), backed this approach. He said: “When we want to create somewhere to share information, well let’s just use Facebook. Let’s not try to recreate technologies that already exist.”

Beale went further, pointing out that civil servants need to undergo a fundamental shift in their philosophy to embrace the use of data held by external companies. Recently, he says, Google spotted patterns in searches for GPs that helped to work out where flu outbreaks were developing. “The cloud also means we are no longer the custodian for such data and I think an important shift will be if we’re actually embracing this.”

But even where government departments are developing their own digital platforms, the cloud enables them to be much more easily shared with others, Beale said. “It is the democratisation of IT – removing these wizards of IT. If someone has created something, whether it is another cloud sector company or another government department, having the culture that the cloud is an enabler means you are not thinking ‘How am I going to put that into my system with my data?’”

"There are some really great things going on, but we are sometimes missing tricks in sharing them with others" - Sheridan Greenland, executive director of the Judicial College at the Ministry of Justice

Some around the table were keen on some central direction to help drive the collaboration enabled by cloud adoption. Wendy Hardaker, commercial law director at the Government Legal Department, said: “One of the problems we are having is getting each department to agree that their lawyers will be able to access our portal through their IT and what we actually probably need from the centre is help to enable us to break some of that down. It is not going to be a small department like us that's going to be able to do it and actually it's incredibly resource-intensive to talk to each individual department about it.”

However, Beale argued that in some areas, central direction goes against the flow of the opportunities presented by the cloud. He said: “We want people to just be able to go onto Amazon software marketplace or things like it and just say, ‘Well we need it for a year. There are 20 of us, that's 20 times 25 quid for a year – we will just do that.’”

One area which could benefit from central attention is the evolution of government IT security policies, according to Shan Rahulan, senior technology adviser at GDS. “I think the technology piece is kind of there, but a lot of it is how do we kind of find the right set of procedures and processes that will allow us to be able to make those things stick?” he said.

Others pointed out the importance of sharing best practice to ensure that the slowest adopters are not left behind by those at the cutting edge. Sheridan Greenland, executive director of the Judicial College at the Ministry of Justice, said: “It is easy to forget that different parts of the whole estate are in a very different state. There are some really great things going on, but we are sometimes missing tricks in sharing them with others.”

Attending the round table were

  • Andy Beale, Chief Technology Officer, HM Government 
  • Richard Cornish, Director for Devolution and SPAG 2020, Department for Work and Pensions
  • Michelle Crotty, Deputy Legal Secretary, Law Officers
  • Elizabeth Gardiner, First Parliamentary Counsel
  • Sheridan Greenland, Executive Director, Judicial College, Ministry of Justice        
  • Vince Groome, Defence Business Services Major Programmes Director, Ministry of Defence
  • Wendy Hardaker, Commercial Law Director, Government Legal Department
  • Stephen Hardwick, Director of Corporate Communications, HM Revenue & Customs
  • Julian Harris, Head of Technology Innovation, Department for Work and Pensions
  • Suzy Jenner, Head of Communications, Department for Education
  • Stephen Long, OBE, EVP of KCOM
  • Shan Rahulan, Senior Technology Adviser, Government Digital Service
  • Neil Ralph, Cloud Operations Manager, KCOM
  • John Seglias, Chief Technology Officer, Defra
  • Gillian Smith, Deputy Director Civil Service Resourcing and Head of Civil Service Fast stream

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