Has the UK government's cloud-first policy served its purpose?

The government has confirmed its long-standing public cloud-first policy is under review, and that it is seeking to launch an alternative procurement framework to G-Cloud. But why?

It is hard not to read too much into all the change occurring in the public sector cloud procurement space at the moment, and all too easy to assume the worst.

First of all there is the news, exclusively broken by Computer Weekly, that the government’s long-standing cloud-first policy is under review, six years after it was first introduced.

For the uninitiated, the policy effectively mandates that all central government departments should take a public cloud-first approach on any new technology purchases. No such mandate exists for the rest of the public sector, but they are strongly advised to do the same.

The policy itself was ushered in around the same sort of time as the G-Cloud procurement framework launched. Both were hailed by the austerity-focused coalition government in power at the time as key to accelerating the take-up of cloud services within Whitehall and the rest of the public sector.

Encouraging the public sector – as a whole – to ramp up their use of cloud (while winding down their reliance on on-premise datacentres) would bring cost-savings and scalability benefits, it was claimed.

Additionally, the online marketplace-like nature of G-Cloud was designed to give SMEs and large enterprises the same degree of visibility to public sector IT buyers. Meanwhile, its insistence on two-year contract terms would safeguard users against getting locked into costly IT contracts that lasted way longer than the technology they were buying would remain good value for money.

Revoking the revolution

The impact the cloud-first policy has had on the IT buying habits of central government should not be underestimated, and can be keenly felt when flicking through the revamped Digital Marketplace sales pages.

Of the £4.57bn of cloud purchases that have made via the G-Cloud procurement framework since its launch in 2012, £3.7bn worth of them have been made by central government departments.

The fact Whitehall is mandated to think cloud-first is always the first thing IT market watchers point to when asked to give an account as to why the wider public sector have been so (comparatively) late to the G-Cloud party.

Public sector IT chiefs often cite the policy as being instrumental in helping secure buy-in from their senior leadership teams for any digital transformation plans they are plotting.

But, according to the government procurement chiefs at the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and the digital transformation whizz-kids at the Government Digital Service (GDS), the policy is now under review, and set for a revamp.

In what way remains to be see. Although – in a statement to Computer Weekly – CCS suggested the changes will be heavily slanted towards supporting the growing appetite within the public sector for hybrid cloud deployments.

The trouble with curbing cloud-first behaviours

The obvious concern in all this is that, if the cloud-first mandate is revoked completely, central government IT chiefs might start falling back into bad procurement habits, whereby cloud becomes an afterthought and on-premise rules supreme again.

Maybe that is an extreme projection, but there are signs elsewhere that some of the behaviours that G-Cloud, in particular, was introduced to curb could be starting to surface again.

One only has to look at how the percentage of deals being awarded to SMEs via G-Cloud has started to slide of late, which has fed speculation a new oligopoly of big tech suppliers is starting to form, who will –  in time – dominate the government IT procurement landscape.

Where G-Cloud is concerned, there are also rumblings of discontent among suppliers who populate the framework that it is becoming increasingly side-lined for a number of reasons.

There are semi-regular grumbles from suppliers that suggestions they have made to CCS or GDS about changes they would like made to the framework being ignored, or not being acted on as quickly as they would like.

Putting users first

Some of these are to do  with making the framework less onerous and admin-heavy for SMEs to use, while others are geared towards making the whole cloud purchasing experience easier for buyers overall.

Either way, suppliers fear this perceived lack of action has prompted buyers to take matters into their own hands by setting up cloud procurement frameworks of their own because G-Cloud is no longer meeting their needs.

And that’s an argument that is likely to get louder following the news that CCS is considering launching an additional cloud hosting and services framework, where contracts of up to 5 years in length could be up for grabs.

A lot of innovation can happen over the course of five years, which leads to the logical assumption that any organisation entering into a contract that long might find itself at something of a technological disadvantage as time goes on.

While the public cloud community has stopped publicly making such a song and dance about price cuts, the fact is the cost of using these services continues to go down over time for users because of economies of scale.

However, if you’re locked-in to a five year contract, will they necessarily feel the benefit of that? Or will they be committed to paying the same price they did at the start of the contract all the way through? If so, in what universe would that represent good value for money?

A lot can change between the consultation and go-live stages of any framework, but there are concerns that this is another sign the government is intent on falling back into its old ways of working where procurement is concerned.

Government cloud comes of age

Although, another way of looking at all this is a sign that the cloud-first policy and G-Cloud have served their purpose. Together they have conspired to make public sector buyers feel so comfortable and confident with using cloud, they feel ready to go it alone and launch frameworks of their own.

Or, as their cloud strategies have matured, it has become apparent that for some workloads a two-year contract term works fine, but there are others where a longer-term deal might be a better, more convenient fit.

It is not out of the realms of possibility. It is worth noting the shift from public cloud-first to a policy that accommodates hybrid deployments is in keeping with the messaging a lot of the major cloud providers are putting out now, which is very different to what it was back in 2012-2013.

Around that time, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was of the view that enterprises will want to close down their datacentres, and move all their applications and workloads to the public cloud.

The company still tows a similar line today, but there is an admission in there now that some enterprises will need to operate a hybrid cloud model and retain some of their IT assets on-premise for some time to come.  And the forthcoming change to the government’s cloud-first policy might simply be its way of acknowledging the same trend.

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