Government cloud: agencies need shopping skills, not just cloud stores

Many governments are implementing cloud services portals – “cloud stores” – to encourage cloud services adoption and provide “trusted” shopping experiences for agencies. The decision by the US government to close its apps.gov portal raises interesting questions about the usefulness of these portals. Ovum’s view is that the focus of government cloud strategy should be on encouraging organizational learning in agencies about why, how, when, and where to buy cloud services. The relative immaturity and fast pace of evolution of the cloud services market mean that buyers need astute shopping skills, but these are only developed through hands-on experience and the sharing of tips and advice among fellow shoppers. Accelerating the development of intelligent buying behaviors at an agency level will be a lower-risk path than relying on centralized government cloud shops in which services of uncertain quality are sold by shop assistants with little practical experience of buying and using them.

The closure of apps.gov heralds the end of the first phase of government cloud computing policy

The closure in early December 2012 of the US government’s cloud services app store heralds the end of the first ambitious phase of government cloud computing policy. Apps.gov was launched in 2009 as part of the US government’s “Cloud First” strategy. Its aim was to provide a central portal to make it easier for agencies to discover and buy cloud services.

Apps.gov served a useful purpose in the early years of the cloud computing story, by boosting visibility of services and vendors. In practice, however, it seems that actual procurement activity was insufficient to justify the continued operation of a dedicated cloud services portal by the Government Services Administration (GSA). These services will now be combined with other offerings, ranging from building materials to industrial supplies, paint, and vehicles, in the GSA’s massive GSA Advantage Procurement catalog at gsaadvantage.gov.

On the one hand, this outcome is disappointing, and could be taken as a slowing of the momentum of government enthusiasm for cloud services. On the other hand, and in Ovum’s view, this is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. It heralds the end of a focus on cloud services as “new and unusual,” and the start of a reintegration of cloud services into the core procurement logic of agencies.

Apps.gov fell off the tightrope of government procurement portals

One of the positive contributions of apps.gov was to promote the visibility of cloud services, demonstrating the possibility of a radically different approach to buying ICT services in government. This lead has been followed by other governments. The UK government recently announced the second iteration of providers on its CloudStore. Australia recently launched a catalog of cloud services providers, the Data Centre as a Service Multi Use List (DCaaS MUL), which is likely to be a precursor of a more self-service-based cloud service portal. The New Zealand government has created a supplier panel of three infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) providers as the first step in a broader cloud services portal.

The challenge with such arrangements is in understanding their real benefits in a fast-evolving and immature market such as cloud computing. These portals walk a tightrope. Are they simply an opportunistic catalog of services and links, or a list of tested, pre-qualified vendors and services? If the former, then the arrangement appears to add little value – agencies can easily find services themselves. If the latter, then who decides which vendors and services are “worthy,” and how are such decisions made? If the evaluation is rigorous, then it is expensive, time consuming, and error-prone, given the pace of change and the fact that evaluators seldom have hands-on experience of buying and using the services. Both type I errors (selecting the unworthy) and type II errors (rejecting the worthy) will be made. If the evaluation is cursory, then the government appears to endorse services without adequate due diligence.

The initial value of apps.gov as an illustrative showcase of services appears to have been diminished by the market maturing to the point where agencies could happily shop in the open market and do not need to use it.

Organizational learning is more important than efficient shopping

Cloud services adoption is gaining momentum in government, but faces a head wind from deeply entrenched ICT procurement process and practices, and vested interests. Simplifying the shopping experience, while helpful, will not be sufficient to encourage new buying behaviors. The most important goal for agencies should be to gain hands-on experience of buying, implementing, and managing cloud services. The knowledge of why, how, when, and where to buy cloud services – along with a practical appreciation of the benefit/risk tradeoffs involved – is only gained by practical experience.

The focus of government cloud strategy should be on the creation of efficient information flows among early adopter agency executives, rather than on the creation of efficient government cloud stores stocked with products of uncertain quality and value.

Organizational learning in agencies can be encouraged by: thought leadership that addresses sticking points associated with data sovereignty, contracts, regulatory compliance, and procurement process; the showcasing of success stories and case studies; and the proactive encouragement of peer-to-peer interactions and the sharing of experiences among early adopters.

Seeing is believing. The problem in the conservative world of government procurement is that benefits are not believed until they are seen, and until their stories have been shared widely among agency business and ICT executives. The focus in 2013 should be on stories, and the creation of vibrant marketplaces and information exchanges to energize buyers, not just stores.

* This first appeared on http://ovum.com/2012/12/19/government-cloud-agencies-need-shopping-skill...



Dr Steve Hodgkinson, Research Director, IT, Asia-Pacific


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