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What does ‘cloud’ mean for the public sector?

Posted on 28 Jan, 2011 by in Government | Leave a comment

You’ll have seen them. Those serious-looking IT folk talking earnestly about ‘cloud’, ‘virtualisation’ and ‘software as a service’. But if you’re not an IT manager, what does it all mean for how you work?

In a nutshell, cloud computing is the concept of everything as a service, from software tools like Huddle, to platforms like Facebook and even the web servers they sit on, with access ‘rented’ out for free or cheap. For public sector organisations, this shift presents some exciting opportunities:

  • To be more innovative: use cloud-hosted services like Flickr, Slideshare, and WordPress.com to explain policy and campaigns in more engaging ways and involve citizens in decision-making
  • To reduce costs: switch to cloud-based services for email and  productivity software, away from licenced software installed on individual desktop machines or expensive mail servers
  • To scale up successful projects: use services like YouTube or Huddle to keep the marginal cost of publishing and collaborating online low and be able to accommodate large volumes of users when projects get popular
  • To share and collaborate with others: take advantage of the shared nature of cloud platforms such as Learning Pool’s e-learning community, forming groups with other like-minded individuals and organisations to combine your efforts and exchange ideas

So what does that mean in practice for the kinds of things public sector organisations do every day?

Making better policy

The discussion about policy issues is shifting online. If you’re making policy, you don’t have to wait for the trade magazine to land in your in-tray, or to meet those stakeholders. Chances are, they’re blogging or tweeting about it too and you can follow their projects or ask them questions whenever you want to. But cloud tools like Facebook open up the policy process to individuals to initiate their own protests and networks, and for civil society organisations to quickly mobilise support for their position. For example the Lighter Later campaign: http://www.lighterlater.org/

Improving service delivery

Citizens aren’t just phoning up or writing a letter when they’re unhappy now – there are forums and social networks for them to vent their spleen. It’s an opportunity too for customer service staff to support people in public forums where an answer to one person can help thousands of others, and turn negative experiences into something much more positive. Ensure your staff understand that you support them using their experience and empathy to help customers online, and to use their common sense as professionals to set the right tone and boundaries when engaging online.

More responsive communications and campaigns

Marketing campaigns will never be the same again. Now the public sector is moving away from paid-for advertising, social media cloud services are being seen as the way to communicate more cheaply and directly. It’s a good way to humanise faceless corporate organisations, but it’s a two-way street now. Social media doesn’t look kindly on organisations that it perceives to be dishonest or which strike the wrong tone when speaking to their audiences. At a local level, the decline in local press has been countered to an extent by the rise of hyperlocal sites, made possible by cloud services such as WordPress.com and Ning.com. These enable neighbourhoods to start their own platforms for discussion and news – and they’re a good channel for public sector organisations to follow the pulse of local debate.

Supporting democracy and transparency

The government is keen to unleash an army of armchair auditors on the books of the public sector, using open data and cloud services to analyse, host and publish their assessment of the value for money of public servants and contracts. More fundamentally, the drive to open up data, institute online petitions via local council websites and suggest ideas to ministers is changing the dynamic between elected representatives and citizens – some of whom use the cloud to blog, tweet or video-blog their work and get ongoing feedback from their constituents and residents.

So making the cloud work for you takes common sense and willingness to be flexible when the clouds move:

  • Think about risks, but don’t be scared of them: clouds are open, shared platforms often run by small companies or with changing terms of service. Make sure you choose cloud services intelligently, have an exit strategy to get your data out, and use cloud for lower risk data and projects initially – but don’t write off using the cloud altogether just because it’s not suitable for everything the organisation does.
  • Be clear and open about the limits, but then trust your people and customers: social media can put a much-needed human face on government, but only if your people are trusted to use professional good sense. This also needs to be backed up with clear guidance on what the organisation expects from people engaging online on its behalf.
  • Shift from defining heavyweight requirements up-front, to embracing lightweight experiments and tools which change over time: cloud services are great value, but rarely suit the classic procurement model. Instead, see low-cost cloud tools as a great opportunity to pilot and explore what works best, scaling up when you’ve discovered what really delivers good value.
  • See cost reduction as the tip of the iceberg – getting people to collaborate is the real win: cloud services help reduce licensing and meeting costs, and that’s a great argument for them. But even more important is the potential they offer to generate new ideas and contributions, by getting teams to work together better or sourcing ideas from outside the organisation more effectively.
  • Choose your clouds carefully – and keep a parachute handy: cloud tools don’t stay the same forever. Like many services, features, licences and pricing all change – and often quickly. Be smart about the services you choose and prepare to be flexible as the changes are more often than not, for the good. But have a sensible plan for how else you might deliver the same requirement, and how you’ll be able to move your data from one service to another.

More about Steph

Steph Gray is Director of Helpful Technology, a digital innovation agency helping mainly public sector clients use – often cloud-based – digital tools to innovate on tight budgets. Formerly, he worked in central government as Head of Digital at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

More about Dave

Dave Briggs is a Community Evangelist at Learning Pool, the leading provider of e-learning to the public sector. He previously worked in local government.

Between them, Steph and Dave recently organised UKGovcamp, an ‘unconference’ of people interested in how the public sector uses technology, which took place in January 2011.

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