Paid Feature In 2013, the UK government heralded Cloud First, a ground-breaking strategy to drive cloud adoption across the public sector. Eight years on, and much of UK public sector IT still runs on-premises - and all too often - on obsolete technologies.
Today the government‘s message boils down to “cloud first, if you can” - perhaps in recognition that modernising complex legacy systems is hard. But in the private sector today, enterprises are typically mixing and matching cloud and on-premises infrastructure, according to the best business fit for their needs.
The UK government should also adopt a “consciously hybrid” approach, according to HPE, The global technology company is calling for the entire IT industry to step up so that the public sector can modernise where needed and keep up with innovation: “We’re calling for a collective IT industry response to the problem,” says Russell MacDonald, HPE strategic advisor to the public sector.
“We’re not saying cloud is bad,” he says. “We’re calling for change. We need a collaborative approach with the public sector so that we can align our goals better, understand each other better and avoid unrealistic ambition and unknown levels of risk.”
Extent of legacy infrastructure
There are some deep-rooted challenges to address. Progress over the last eight years means that the public sector now has one foot in legacy IT - rooted in decades-old ways of working – and one foot in the digital world, which is largely cloud first, agile, flexible and fast-moving. As Russell says: “The two clash, and the gap between them is widening.”
There’s an awful lot of legacy infrastructure still in use in the public sector – HPE has found that over 70 per cent of public sector organisations' infrastructure and 73 per cent of its data remains on-premises. Keeping it going costs £2.3bn a year, almost half of annual government IT spend, according to a 2020 report prepared for the Cabinet Office, Organising for Digital Delivery.
The gulf between legacy IT and digital services has been emphasised by the government’s Cloud First policy: funding often goes on new digital-first initiatives to the neglect of essential services running on-premises, so that there is then no budget to modernise.
The public sector also has concerns about data security and privacy in the public cloud - with 78 per cent of public bodies saying their services are unsuitable for migration to the cloud, according to HPE.
“The nature of the public sector is such that not everything is suitable for the cloud, but security concerns can be used as an excuse to avoid change,” says Russell. Also, ”Cloud isn’t – and never was – the answer to everything,” he adds.
The key to getting the right solution is understanding the problems that need to be solved and the outcomes that the customer wants to achieve. This in turn will determine the right technology for the right business fit.
Public sector skills gap
Dependence on legacy infrastructure, concerns about security and privacy in the cloud - all are tied to the lack of relevant technical skills within the public sector.
It’s a skills deficit that has a number of causes, outsourcing and cutbacks among them, and, according to the Cloud Industry Forum, the skills gap between public and private sectors is growing.
Says Russell: “It’s a huge challenge to try to deploy citizen-facing services in the public cloud when the back-office systems making those services work are legacy systems.”
HPE has started discussions with some of its public sector clients to find ways to enable skills exchange so that HPE staff learn more about the public sector and public sector staff learn more about hybrid technology. HPE is often asked to provide knowledge transfer, says Russell, “but really what is needed is to get people at the grass-roots level of the Civil Service to develop the necessary skills."
But technical skills are in high demand and the public sector is unable to match the rates of pay in the private sector so this is difficult to achieve. What’s needed, according to HPE, is encouragement to people early in their career, so that they get excited and invested in the relationship between their work in technology, its impact on our lives, and the creation of public services that make people's lives better.
The people at the top in the Civil Service also need to be educated about digital change, says Russell. It’s a point echoed by a recent report from the National Audit Office on the challenges in implementing digital change which advises the public sector to work in partnership with suppliers and engage with them earlier in the procurement process.
The report comments that “only a small proportion of senior officials in government have first-hand experience of digital business change and as a result many lack sufficient understanding of the technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible”. It also says that many of the problems of the public sector’s digital change programmes stem from the inability of senior government officials to understand the issues and make the decisions required to implement digital change effectively.
Public sector financial models
Public sector financial models also present a problem. Russell points out it’s difficult to be consciously hybrid and modernise an on-premises environment if you’re tied to buying capital hardware in a five or seven-year procurement cycle. “It tends to build-in legacy and it means that at the end of that five or seven year contract, you've got equipment that's already outdated,” he says.
Old systems are far more costly to run and, in the UK government’s case, incur a huge amount of technical debt. The Cabinet Office has a handy definition for this term, which it describes as the situation where "important operational services are provided by out of date 'legacy systems' often built on obsolete technical platforms or using programming languages that are no longer widely supported. This brings a number of challenges including very high 'keeping the lights on' maintenance costs, data and cyber-security risks, and an inability to develop new functionality on technologies or systems that are no longer widely supported."
Not cloud versus on-premises
The HPE manifesto calls for change beyond technology, acknowledging that social and environmental change are also pivotal to the UK’s public services. Russell emphasises HPE’s credentials as a business where social and environmental concerns are at the forefront:” We’re saying ‘let's have that conversation. Let's make sure you're using the right technology in the right way for the right things. We can work with you to achieve your goals’.“
“This is not about cloud versus on-premises, although cloud is a massive challenge for the public sector” he adds. “The public sector is struggling to get everything to the cloud, and cloud doesn’t solve all the public sector’s challenges. Furthermore, cloud providers don’t have a strategy for the IT services and systems that are on-premises. When you have systems on-premises, at the edge and in the cloud, you need a strategy that addresses it all.”
HPE has developed these themes into a film, called Consciously Hybrid. Like the article above, the film addresses the challenges facing the sector as it wrestles with delivering digital-first public services - but adds some great interviews into the mix, and higher production values! Watch Consciously Hybrid now (no registration required).
This article is sponsored by HPE.