A steady evolution in cloud adoption within the UK public sector has been taking place over the last decade. However, 2020 has been a year like no other, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) is enjoying rapid growth of its government footprint despite challenges such as access to skills and a procurement system that is still not as dynamic as the company would like.
Cloud adoption in the public sector had been growing before the pandemic and global government investments in that area were on track to grow by 20-25% a year from 2019 to 2023, according to McKinsey. The health emergency has only accelerated that movement and the UK is no exception, as public sector bodies have been forced to shift on the fly and build on the expansion of their digital footprints and data capabilities.
While acting as a foundation to modernise infrastructure set-ups, the cloud has provided the agility to public sector bodies of being able to quickly spin up virtual machines to roll out new internal or public-facing platforms and applications. This has been crucial during the pandemic, to enable anything from remote working for public servants and powering contact tracing, to providing citizen services online.
But the main driver for cash-strapped governments when it comes to cloud is cost – the on-demand model that shifts infrastructure capital investment to maintenance costs has never been more attractive in the current crisis.
Chris Hayman, AWS UK public sector head, tells Computer Weekly in an interview: “What our public sector customers are telling us is that not only can they save loads of money by moving to cloud, but they are able to reduce their technical debt and deliver their mission far more quickly than before.”
Delivering financial efficiencies to UK public sector cloud buyers is a big area of focus for AWS. In November 2020, the One Government Value Agreement (OGVA) was signed between AWS and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), a three-year memorandum of understanding with the UK government to accelerate adoption and reduce costs through cloud, while skilling up public servants on off-premise technologies.
AWS’s UK public sector client portfolio includes some of the largest central government departments, such as the Home Office, which, according to Hayman, has managed to generate 40% in cost reductions by using cloud. The Home Office is the biggest buyer of off-premise services and technologies via the G-Cloud procurement framework, according to the government’s own Digital Marketplace IT spending league table.
Chris Hayman, AWS UK
Greater cloud adoption has also increased the focus on security within public sector organisations, both to ensure that the benefits of the transition away from on-premise environments and also to prevent the loss of sensitive agency and citizen data. This is something AWS has been able to address, says Hayman, who cites the Ministry of Justice as an example of a government department that has been able to enhance security through a cloud set-up while generating 60% in IT savings.
“Even the more cautious [government] organisations and departments are finding benefit in the cloud and the tools that are available to them, as that enables them to get a better security posture and greater agility than they’ve been able to in the past,” he says.
To further illustrate his point of how cloud has been enabling agility at a lower cost in the UK public sector, Hayman highlights the case studies of local authorities such as the London Borough of Waltham Forest, as well as Hampshire County Council and the London Borough of Hounslow as examples of where contact centre operations were set up in a couple of weeks by deploying cloud-based contact centre Amazon Connect.
On the other hand, Hayman notes that many government departments have invested and will continue to invest a lot of capital expenditure in large legacy systems. AWS wants to assist these organisations in their migration journeys from mainframes or on-premise arrangements, he says, but he also believes there is room for a hybrid approach.
“While we believe the public sector organisations will work from the cloud over time, we do also recognise that there will be legacy equipment in their datacentres,” he says. “And so we are providing a number of tools and services, either to interface with those systems or to help them migrate from their systems.”
Hayman is referring to AWS’s partnership with VMware, which is aimed to help customers bridge their on-premise legacy estate with the cloud, and Outposts, whereby customers who need low latency can have AWS compute set up in-house.
But when it to comes to multicloud strategies, AWS is not so keen on the idea. Hayman concedes that “customers are empowered to make different decisions around whether their workloads go”, but argues that the cloud giant is the most experienced player and implies that going down the route of having multiple suppliers is far from ideal.
“What we wouldn’t want to see is organisations trying to conform to the lowest common denominator, and sort of provide a broker across multiple platforms,” he says.
In the current scenario of acceleration and evolution of cloud adoption in the public sector, Hayman considers the creation of cloud-related skills as one of the greatest hurdles government IT leaders face. He points out that there is “an obligation on suppliers to help government” when it comes to skills.
He gives the example of AWS’s plan to train 6,000 civil servants as part of the OGVA and re/Start, a programme focused on unemployed and underemployed individuals for cloud careers through classroom-based training, which was expanded to Edinburgh, Blackpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield in November 2020.
Chris Hayman, AWS UK
“Historically, government has been served by a small number of [IT] suppliers under very long outsourcing arrangements and they are now insourcing a lot and looking to do the things themselves, so skills will be a really important area for the UK public sector in order to be able to make use of modern technologies,” says Hayman.
When it comes to AWS itself becoming part of that tech supplier oligarchy, along with Microsoft with its Azure cloud offering, Hayman notes that despite the fact that the company is making “tremendous progress” in pushing cloud adoption in the UK, spend in that area is still less than 5% of total IT spend.
Responding to critics who point out that AWS is winning many UK government contracts when Amazon is highlighted as a low-tax-paying company in the UK, Hayman sticks to his narrative that off-premise services spend in government is still not substantial – and that cloud actually delivers benefits to the taxpayer.
“The savings central government is achieving with cloud are tremendous impacts – not only are they getting more value by moving to the cloud, but they’re also saving money,” he says. “So as British taxpaying citizens, that’s something we’ve got to be proud of.”
A dynamic approach
As well as creating cloud skills, the key goal of the value agreement set up between the CCS and AWS is to accelerate cloud computing adoption in the public sector and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SMEs) further participation in government contracts.
Through the government’s G-Cloud procurement framework, more than 150 companies have already used AWS to help them sell more than £1.3bn of their own services to the government. Some 91% of the suppliers on the 12th iteration of G-Cloud are classified as SMEs, and in view of these figures, CCS procurement bosses describe the platform as a “great public sector success”.
Hayman says UK cloud procurement “has come on leaps and bounds” in recent years. He describes G-Cloud 12 as “a really good adjustment” in relation to the previous iteration and that the vehicle has helped reduce the friction behind procurement. On the other hand, Hayman notes that the current approach still has some way to go to meet AWS’s ideal standard.
“We would love to get to a point where procurement was dynamic – you could pay by the minute or by the second, which is what our platform supports,” he says. “But by the same token, obviously, there’s procurement legislation that we and our customers are very mindful about.”
Hayman adds that this is an area that governments around the world are trying to move towards.
“Having more and more granularity on purchasing options would be beneficial [to governments],” he says. “But I think it is going to take time for organisations to be able to adopt these types of legislation and frameworks. We will continue to work with governments on these types of things where we can.”