ICYMI – Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government?

Still will face the same management challenges as conventional IT and the particular difficulties governments have in fixing and sticking to specifications. But certainly worth exploring:

As federal government announcements go, this one could have been a real snooze-fest.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Carla Qualtrough on Wednesday jointly unveiled a new information technology policy that had been in force for months, involving a once-obscure branch of technology called cloud services.

But their short show-and-tell, delivered on Facebook Live, hinted at something more profound taking place.

Brison in particular has accepted the idea that big government has to change the way it builds and manages its IT infrastructure — and that cloud services, which allow departments to lease computer capacity a bit at a time from private sector firms such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure — offer the way to do it.

“We can’t be a Blockbuster government when we’re serving a Netflix citizenry,” he said in comparing a defunct video rental business with a video-streaming company.

Brison appeared to be taking aim in part at Shared Services Canada, the government’s central computer services agency, which reports to Qualtrough. Since its formation in 2011, Shared Services has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new data centres to house information and software that underpins programs ranging from the Canada Pension Plan to Statistics Canada’s census.

While the data centres are fresh and modern, Shared Services hasn’t impressed many federal departments because it’s been slow and inflexible in setting up new online services and ordering the new hardware.

Over the past year, smaller departments have forced the issue by quietly running their own pilot projects using Azure and other cloud providers. Private contractors now have dozens of cloud-based IT procurements in the works, such as applications designed to make scientific or business data available to the public.

Brison, whose department sets the overall policy for government IT, has reportedly been impressed with what cloud technology can do. On Wednesday he enumerated key benefits, such as how departments using cloud services can experiment with software applications a bit at a time, learning from the inevitable mistakes along the way.

“It’s better to learn the lessons early,” he said in an apparent reference to IT disasters such as the botched rollout of the Phoenix Pay system, “than to have big zombie IT projects rumbling on, trapped under the tyranny of sunk costs.”

How would Phoenix have developed in a cloud-based world? We could actually have an opportunity to find out if Qualtrough opts to restart the entire project. Nothing on that prospect Wednesday, though.

Of course, it’s very early days in the cloud services revolution. Qualtrough, who also seemed very much on board, noted her department had negotiated 22 contracts to date with companies that are selling cloud services to seven government departments and agencies, including Correctional Service Canada.

However, the value of these contracts — which are brokered by Shared Services in exchange for a fee — barely tops $2 million. This is a tiny fraction of Shared Services’ annual budget of more than $1.5 billion.

And there’s the other matter of security. Most of the government’s data is secret (a Protected B or higher classification), and Shared Services still has a monopoly over storing this information. Wednesday’s announcement was for unclassified stuff such as government websites that are to be viewed by the public.

Private contractors are suspicious that Shared Services is relying on security designations to retain its share of the government’s IT business.

It’s not clear how long its monopoly will last. Qualtrough noted the government is mulling further changes that would allow departments “in the future” to store even secret data in the cloud — one of the reasons tech giants such as Google and Amazon have been adding data centres in Canada.

This much is clear: providers of cloud services have secured their foothold in government. If they deliver as promised, this could be the beginning of the end of monster IT failures. There’ll be many small ones, to be sure. But the egregious example of Phoenix Pay has taught us that’s a much better way to run.

via Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government? | Ottawa Citizen

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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