Why Ottawa needs to get its head in the cloud

Suppose the federal government had to replace a computer database used for – oh, I don’t know, tracking Senate expenses or something. The normal course of action would be to reach out to one of the technology firms listed as a public sector vendor of record, buy a new database and install it. Yet there is another option: Consider a database hosted by a third party in the cloud, much the way consumers let Apple store their music in iCloud, and potentially save some money and management headaches. This is a much harder sell for the government than it may sound.

Cloud computing is slowly making its way into the back-end systems that help deliver services to Canadian citizens, but a number of barriers remain. Many are still worried about how secure the data hosted in cloud-based systems will be. The contracts for cloud computing can be complex and confusing. In the public sector, meanwhile, the procurement processes can be slow to change. None of this, however, is stopping a number of local IT industry associations from lobbying hard for a move that would make the Canadian government act a lot more like the U.K.

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) points out that the U.K. has adopted a “G-Cloud First” approach, meaning that before the public sector there invests in any hardware or software, they consider using a cloud-based service before any other options. The U.K. has also set up a “CloudStore” where IT suppliers can vie for government business, which has attracted more than 450 vendors since its launch in February. The idea is to ensure half of new IT spending will be on a public cloud (that is, data or IT infrastructure hosted by a third party) within the next year and a half. This is an ambitious example for Canada to follow, but the vendors are eager for a “G-Cloud First” policy here.

“The federal government needs to reset how they are modernizing,” says CATA president John Reid, whose organization has held Webinars on the subject and is urging its members to send a briefing note about the proposal to their MP.

Of course, the government set up its Shared Services department to look for cost savings and efficiencies in areas like IT spending, so it’s not that outlandish. However Neal McEvoy, who runs a Canadian group called the Cloud Best Practices Network, said the benefits would extend beyond just the government or citizens.

“What's really most notable is how the model makes government procurement more accessible to small businesses,” he says. “This is hugely important given the painful irony of how Canadian SMEs find it the most difficult to access government spending.”

There are tons of startups in Canada, and even more established players, who offer either software as a service or who could run government servers from their own data centre. The Canadian Cloud Council, another industry group that has been advocating for this sort of change, sees empowering those nascent firms as critical to Canada’s overall position in the global market. “This is a fundamental issue of economics and has very little to do with information technology,” says Robert Hart, its president. “It needs to addressed at the top level of the Canadian government if we expect to remain a remotely competitive nation.”

This may seem a little too rah-rah for a computing model that still requires a number of kinks to be worked out. I think it’s important that governments focus less on the word “cloud” if they were to adopt such a policy but instead keep remembering the word “consider.” There’s a huge difference between G-Cloud First and G-Cloud Only. We’re not there yet, and may never be. Being intentional about evaluating every spending decision through the prism of this emerging approach to technology might be a good way to help accelerate adoption, overcome key challenges and maybe even help local firms flourish. Better that than to stick with the current practice, which sometimes looks a lot like G-Cloud last.

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