Public IT heads should be in the clouds

Cloud computing providers could provide the public sector with valuable insights into architecting the next generation of government IT infrastructure as an agile, whole-of-government utility - rather than creating outdated, inflexible shared services and outsourcing arrangements.

Public sector agencies are not immune to pressures to cut costs and boost operating performance. The flurry of economic stimulus spending might create the appearance of spend, spend, spend by government, but governments themselves are under acute financial pressure.

CIOs need to take action to reduce their day-to-day IT costs before the CFO cuts their budget anyway.

Public sector discussions about cloud computing often revolve around agencies putting applications on platforms, such as Amazon EC2, or using applications such as Gmail or Salesforce. Concerns over data sovereignty, privacy and control of the data tend to stymie progress beyond talking.

We need to move beyond this at-the-margins thinking and explore the applicability of cloud logic to the core operations of government IT.

Cloud computing offers ubiquitous IT, providing on-demand services, made possible by virtual applications that can scale. Applications are architected as multi-tenant web services, simplifying the way users access them via the internet.

Computing that was formerly provided by a single machine, or an organisation's IT infrastructure, can be supplied by an organisation's  infrastructure operating at a global level.

Most governments are in the process of rethinking the boundaries of their IT organisations anyway - moving away from treating IT as an agency-by-agency issue towards consolidation, rationalisation and standardisation on a whole-of-government basis to reduce costs.

The ideal is to deliver efficient applications and IT services to any public servant, regardless of their agency or location.

This transformation of public sector IT is more about changes in governance, organisation and culture than technology - and we all know this to be gruelling work. Governments may be making it harder than it needs to be by using outmoded approaches, such as enterprise architecture, common applications and shared services.

The major IT services vendors are making massive investments in cloud computing research and infrastructure because they see the emergence of global IT utilities as the future of the industry.

CIOs should be tapping into this emerging body of knowledge and exploring ways to architect the next generation of government IT infrastructure using cloud logic. Governments should understand when and where to leverage the cloud and how to create agile public sector clouds - not just a rehash of outdated, inflexible shared services and outsourcing arrangements.

Steve Hodgkinson, director of government practice