Is the government’s cloud-first approach failing?

Westminster’s cloud-first directive to public bodies has attracted much criticism. Does the policy need to be ditched, or is it simply a matter of executing it better?


Ever since its introduction in 2013, the government’s so-called cloud-first policy has been at the heart of the public sector’s digital transformation efforts. Put simply, the policy means that bodies seeking to update their technology should evaluate cloud-based systems before considering any other option. But there is a strong argument that applying such an approach across the board, regardless of context, is unwise.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), a technology vendor that promotes a hybrid approach to IT adoption, mounted a publicity campaign in September that described Westminster’s cloud-first directive as “inappropriate” for the public sector. HPE argued that the friction between the policy and the realities of following it had “left cloud strategies disjointed and incomplete or, at worst, completely stalled” in some cases.

This is because a public cloud is not always the most efficient or appropriate repository for workloads and data. More than three-quarters (78%) of public bodies provide services that are unsuitable for migration to a public cloud, according to government figures requested by HPE under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Moreover, 63% of public-sector organisations have yet to adopt a dedicated cloud strategy. More than 70% of their infrastructure and 73% of their data remains on the premises.

“The policy mandated where workloads and data should be without prescribing how to do it,” notes Matt Harris, HPE’s vice-president of sales in the UK. “In many cases, it failed to anticipate the long tail of legacy IT, entrenched outsourcing and a lack of skills across the sector. It specified a destination without addressing the steep mountain to climb on the way there.”

Public-sector organisations should be focused on their core purpose, not on running technology

Does the public sector need to stop pursuing the cloud-first approach, or is it merely a question of following the policy in a more effective way? And is it only a technological issue, or are deeper cultural factors also at play? 

Tracey Jessup is chief digital and information officer at the Parliamentary Digital Service, which helps people working at the Palace of Westminster with their IT needs. She reports that the cloud enables her organisation to deliver new services cost-effectively. 

“Public-sector organisations should be focused on their core purpose, not on running technology. The adoption of cloud services gives them an opportunity to shift the burden of running complex systems to specialist suppliers,” Jessup says. “The public sector can also face significant challenges in recruiting technical specialists. Cloud systems provide a way to access those technologies without needing those specialists.”

But adopting cloud services isn’t something that can be done overnight, of course. “To truly exploit the benefits, applications need to be redesigned and prior investments in legacy technologies need to be realised before the financial case stacks up. Every organisation will be at a different stage in its journey to the cloud,” she adds.

The critics’ argument is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not applicable. Some public-sector bodies may find cloud systems too difficult to implement and/or lack the required skills or procurement processes. In other cases, owing to the characteristics of the legacy systems they have, they simply won’t be able to deliver on the cloud-first policy.

Nonetheless, the public sector’s progress towards cloud computing has accelerated during the pandemic, according to research conducted late last year for the Cloud Industry Forum. In the public sector, 49% of organisations had increased their cloud adoption as a direct result of the Covid crisis. Among those that had already migrated, 97% of decision-makers said that the cloud was playing an important part in their response to the pandemic, with 42% describing its role as critical.

The forum’s CEO, Alex Hilton says: “Looking at cloud benefits, 65% of respondents in the public sector cited the quick transition from office to homeworking it enabled. In addition, 55% mentioned how it helped the organisation to be agile, while the same percentage said it had enabled operations to continue as usual throughout the upheaval. It’s clear that short-term advantages were delivered early in the pandemic, which will translate into greater organisational resilience in the long term.”

According to research by the International Data Corporation, despite the widespread adoption of public clouds, 70% of all applications remain outside them. This is down to several factors, including data gravity (the ability of a large body of data to attract applications and services); concerns about maintaining cybersecurity and regulatory compliance; and unpredictable costs.

What might be a better alternative to the cloud-first policy, particularly considering the acceleration of digital transformation programmes in the public sector?

Harris observes that the business world is shifting from a cloud-first to a “cloud-everywhere” model and argues that the public sector should follow its lead. It also means acknowledging that not everything is suitable for public clouds and that many of the benefits of a cloud operating model can be realised in private data centres. This approach can “improve efficiency, reduce energy consumption and optimise costs because you pay only for what you use”. 

Harris continues: “The next decade will be focused on using data everywhere across the entire organisation. The public sector should look to adopt edge-to-cloud platforms that enable them to connect, protect and analyse all their data and act on that information. This is a strategic imperative for every organisation, so that it can unlock the full potential of its data.”

Where is the cloud working well in the public sector? 

Despite the challenges of adopting a cloud-first policy, some public bodies have successfully moved to the cloud and exceeded performance expectations in so doing.

One of these is the Office for National Statistics (ONS) The UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics is responsible for collecting and publishing demographic and socioeconomic information. It also runs the census in England and Wales every 10 years.

Last year the ONS decided to adopt a cloud-first approach to help its core functions operate more efficiently. This included finding ways to better collect, process and interpret data to produce higher-quality statistics; improve data-sharing with policy-makers and other stakeholders; and store data more securely and efficiently.

The organisation says it knew that, if it was to achieve core operational objectives such as persuading 75% of the population to complete the 2021 census online, it would need to use scalable cloud services.

In a case study published by the Government Digital Service in March 2020, it said that “being open and honest with staff about the cloud strategy and cultural change was important in getting buy-in. Embracing the ability to fail fast and being open was best, especially when senior leaders did not have the answers.”

Now the ONS says that the cloud will be vital in helping it to become more responsive and innovative to meet business requirements and user needs. The new arrangement enables the organisation “to try out things quickly and cheaply as proof of concepts or pilots with test data before any big investments are made.”