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Public cloud for public sector: making IT work for local authorities

Councils need to modernise their services so are trying to embrace new digital capabilities, but many don’t have the finance to invest in new private systems. So what do councils do? Does the answer lie in public cloud?

People rely on their local authority for the basic services that make life run smoothly. They’re tasked with delivering a huge range of essential services, from adult social care and parking permits to rubbish collections and council tax. If the local council is unable to do its job properly, it affects people’s quality of life very quickly

Despite that, in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, local councils have consistently faced the challenge of decreasing funding. As an example, it was revealed in July by the Local Government Association that almost one in five councils in England are at risk of having to drastically reduce spending in order to avoid bankruptcy.

Can councils do more with less?

With that in mind, councils are embracing new digital capabilities to improve the citizen experience. A recent Forrester report in partnership with AWS gives examples of where local authorities are in this journey – as an indicator of the general trend towards cloud, 76% of local authorities see modernising their IT infrastructure as a high priority for the next year.

Historically, online council services have been delivered on a private cloud infrastructure using data centres built by the council’s own IT department. Under this model, the council must maintain and operate its servers itself, making sure that they’re secure. Building and securing these data centres requires significant up-front capex spend and councils must apply for fixed budget for any given project. This reduces the agility of the council to trial and scale new services. If they try to modernise via private cloud, there’s a significant cost impact.

Public services need public cloud

So, what are councils to do? They need to modernise their services, but many don’t have the finance to invest in new private systems.

The answer lies in public cloud. In recent years, providers like AWS, Google and Azure have developed high-capacity, quick-start public cloud services that can be spun up on request, without the significant capex and running opex associated with private cloud. The public cloud paradigm allows local authorities to deliver services more effectively and quickly, adding, trialling and rolling out new services very quickly.

By working with an experienced public cloud provider, local authorities can quickly get agile services up and running, using off-the-shelf application tools rather than having to build services themselves. Many public cloud providers now package up IT services as consumable pay-as-you-use components, which makes it much easier to get a new system online fast. For example, AWS has over 150 products in its portfolio, ranging from customer engagement to Internet of things (IoT) technology to enable smart cities. A council might need to rely on a systems integrator to build the full project but launching a new service in the public cloud is much easier than building from scratch.

As an example, a smart city platform may combine information from thousands of connected devices including street-lights, environmental sensors and ANPR cameras. The platform will then visualise this geospatial data to provide insights to improve urban planning, help reduce CO2 emissions, make buses run more efficiently, and so on. This data may also be combined with external information - such as road traffic accident data, for example, to improve road safety. As city councils experiment with smart city platforms, a public cloud environment allows them to trial use cases, knowing that ultimately if successful, the platform can be expanded to handle greater volumes of data in the future.

Cost control

The question of capex versus opex is the other key consideration for local authorities. Using public cloud turns IT into a consumption cost rather than a fixed capacity.

Councils essentially want certainty when it comes to financial planning as they must apply for budget and grants for specific projects and programmes. Public cloud’s consumption-based model can lead to fluctuating costs due to the seasonality of services and unforeseen spikes in usage. However, councils can work with experienced providers who understand the cost impact of both data and cloud resources and balance services against cost. For example, planning future services and reserving, at a reduced cost, cloud resources when needed.

The benefits of partnership

As councils embrace public cloud, they need access to a wider range of technical skills, which they may find it hard to recruit if they’re competing with the private sector and metropolitan centres. As a result, it’s crucial to work with experienced technology providers who can help them transition to public cloud.

The Government’s ‘Cloud First’ policy recommends that when procuring new or existing services, public sector organisations should consider and fully evaluate potential cloud solutions first – before they consider any other option. The recently announced G-Cloud 11 framework provides a single marketplace from which to select cloud hosting, cloud software and cloud support services from trusted suppliers.

In conclusion, public cloud can help local authorities provide better, smarter and more efficient public services and is critical in helping managing costs. They do however need experienced partners who can provide a comprehensive review of their needs and help them plan out the move. As expectations of digital services grow, councils owe it to their citizens to investigate the possibilities.

You can find out more about KCOM's work with the public sector here and if you'd like to speak to me or one of the team here.