U.K. Government Cloud Ambitions Bigger Than Achievements, Critics Say

A year after it launched an easy to use, SMB-vendor friendly buying site, critics question what they see as very patchy U.K. government CloudStore success.
In February 2012, the U.K. government launched its answer to Obama's Government Cloud: the CloudStore, a way to easily buy cloud-based technology off a catalogue with transparent pricing as a way to deliver savings for the public purse.

A year in and the evidence seems to be mounting that civil servants don't actually care that much about using the cloud to do anything of the sort.

The Cabinet Office, the part of the British political executive that supports both G-Cloud and information and communications technology (ICT) procurement reform in central government, says $9.2 million (£6 million) worth of cloud-based goods and services have been sold through the CloudStore (the public face of its overall G-Cloud initiative) in the shape of 200 different sales.

Here's the problem: The U.K. government spends more like $23 billion (£15 billion) on ICT per year -- and most of that still seems to be with the kind of giant vendors that critics say have warped the market in the past 20 years, as demonstrated in its recent $1.6 billion deal with Oracle.

[ Will tax troubles shut big tech firms out of U.K. government contracts? See Google, Amazon May Face New Hurdle In U.K.. ]

The Cabinet Office says the latest version of the CloudStore offers 3,200 services from nearly 460 suppliers, three-quarters of whom are the opposite of the Oracles of the world. Rather, they are small and midsize tech firms and local contenders who historically have been excluded from lucrative central government contracts by complex bidding processes and contract races that you need deep pockets to enter, let alone win.

Francis Maude, the political appointee who runs the Cabinet Office, in a statement this week said, "In just 12 months, G-Cloud has shown itself to be a model for efficient public sector IT procurement, establishing a dynamic marketplace for cloud-based IT services. We have simplified the procurement process through G-Cloud to make it more accessible to a wider range of companies, leading to more choice, better value for the taxpayer and growth for the economy. Suppliers are asked what they can offer government, rather than being issued with complicated specifications that stifle innovation. "

Maude, a high-profile spending hawk, added that G-Cloud is a core example of the kind of new approach to delivering public sector services the administration wants to see. "This is the way we want government IT to be -- simpler, quicker, cheaper and focused on matching solutions to business requirements, reducing waste and cutting costs."

But for all of its celebrating CloudStore wins, or pointing out the variety of ICT goodies it has delivered (e.g., hosting, storage, email, document management systems, collaboration tools and virtual desktops, accessible from public, private and hybrid cloud models), Maude's team's support for the process seems to have been winning very few actual hearts and minds in the big ministries that make up British administrative government.

The Cabinet Office says there is still plenty of time to do just that and the program is on target. Others are starting to wonder if the kind of embedded procurement culture it's up against can ever really be changed.

One obstacle is that few civil servants in Whitehall have enough ICT savvy to make canny buying decisions. After two generations of aggressive outsourcing, especially in ICT, too many ministries (according to rumor) just sign what their big system integrator partners put in front of them.

The Cabinet Office's cloud zealots know that, which is why they ignored big cloud firms like Google and Amazon at the CloudStore's debut. But buyers like dealing with names they recognize and trust, say critics, and don't feel confident from buying from small, unfamiliar players.

There is also the historic issue of so-called "gold plating" of requirements. More often than not, a department will go to market specifying things like secret service level security and encryption, from what most would see as a pretty standard internal email system. British ministries are also notorious for protecting their own turf, lessening the chances of any common systems being bought, despite shared services being a battle cry for cost-cutting project leaders for the last decade.

To be fair, the government isn't claiming outright victory -- or anything like it -- yet. The bureaucrat who runs the program day by day under Maude, G-Cloud program director Denise McDonagh, said "the move to purchasing IT services as a commodity requires a culture shift for the public sector," something she acknowledges "won't happen overnight."

Still, after only a year, she insisted, "most big government departments have bought services from the cloud, and there is significant buy-in from local government." As a result, she is confident that "evidence of the benefits of cloud is growing all the time, and we are working with buyers to help them adapt to commodity-based IT purchasing."

But it seems it's going to take a lot more candles on the CloudStore's birthday cake before more people are convinced British civil servants really understand commodity tech purchasing.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing