Local government cloud migration: put people first, technology second

Aerial photo of people in street scene with clouds floating above them

A little-known fact about local government never ceases to amaze me: a typical council is responsible for more than 700 distinct public services for its local community.

This number, based on research by the Local Government Association, is all the more astonishing when you consider the diversity and complexity of those services – and the financial challenges that local government faces.

£16billion reduction in revenue

If you work in local government, you don’t need me to remind you of the services your organisation runs. But for the benefit of our wider readership, it’s worth elaborating.

At any one time, our local authorities are simultaneously protecting vulnerable people; keeping our streets clean; vetting and licensing pubs and restaurants; helping those who need it most have a roof over their head; running elections; attracting tourism and investment in the local economy; ensuring our buildings are safe; administering births, deaths and marriages; planning for disasters; running recreation and sports facilities… The list goes on… And on…

Now, for an interesting comparison, think about the number of services offered by a private company – for example, a high street bank. A quick scan of my own bank’s website, and I can count, at most, about 20 discrete services.

Next, take a look at the financial picture in local government. Clearly, our councils aren’t banks making millions of pounds of profits. Rather, they’re public organisations, funded by council tax and other fees, as well as grants from central government. Generally, it’s about a 50/50 split between local funding sources and those from Whitehall.

And finally, consider the past decade. Between 2012 and 2020, councils lost 60p out of every £1 provided by central government to spend on local services, compared to the preceding decade. This equates to a £16billion reduction in revenue.

How have our councils even started to address this colossal shortfall? 

Increasing council tax and rates is rife with challenges. First, there are limits on the amount by which council tax may be increased without public consultation. Second, the taxpaying public does not generally welcome council tax rises with open arms.

And so, local government has had no choice but to explore other ways to offset the cuts.

This is often described as ‘doing more with less’. But in my experience, as councils face not only this immense financial pressure – but pressure from citizens for ‘smarter’ services, too – it isn’t just about ‘doing more with less’. It’s also about ‘doing better with less’.

The challenge of meeting digital expectations while serving diverse communities

Not only has the past decade seen local government income cut to the bone, it’s also seen consumers become more accustomed to digital services.

The more we’ve embraced digital technology, the more we expect the same joined-up digital experience in everything from the systems we use for work to the tools we use for shopping.

Additionally, we expect all of this to be available on our handheld devices. In fact, in the UK, 85 per cent of online activity in 2020 was conducted through smartphones.

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift. Obviously, one can argue that we’ve had no choice but to use online services during lockdown. But consider news about Amazon’s biggest profits everthe cardboard box shortagethe surge in video calling and the growth in streaming services. These stories all point to one thing: the pandemic has led us to the point of no return with our digital lives.

At the same time, not every member of the public has the means, the inclination or the ability to use digital technology. So, while local government is looking to digitally transform services – and with good reason – it must do so in a way that works for everyone. This is no small feat – particularly in light of data and privacy issues…

Data in local government

It’s difficult to comprehend the staggering amount of data shared worldwide in a single minute, let alone an entire day, month or year – but this World Economic Forum article gives a good idea. However, it’s safe to say that the volume of data we produce and draw on is growing exponentially. And that’s the case in local government organisations, too.

As Big Data has gotten bigger, so too has public concern and regulations about the handling of that data. In 2018, the GDPR heralded stricter laws for data protection – and more recently, tech giant Apple has been on a crusade to improve data and privacy.

For local authorities, the challenges around data go beyond those seen in the private sector. The handling and processing of sensitive personal data within councils – for example, in children’s services – comes with other practical, ethical and legal challenges.

Additionally, unlike the companies that were born in the internet age – whose systems and data might be in the cloud from the outset – councils often have a legacy of paper-based records. And GDPR applies to physical data as much as it does to digital data.

Consequently, when it comes to their data, councils have another enormous job on their hands. Not only must they comply with GDPR and other strict regulations in their everyday activities – they must ensure decades or historical data are brought in line with the 21st century, too.

Digital transformation must be more than skin deep

As I’ve described, among the many challenges local government has faced in the past decade, there are three that stand out. And the pandemic has only compounded this situation:

  1. Significant loss of revenue
  2. Citizen demand for online services
  3. Greater concern and regulation around data

Additionally, due to the hundreds of services they run, councils also face the challenge of using and managing a wide range of disjointed back-office systems – many of them relatively old – all dependent on reliable IT.

One of the ways local government is responding is through digital transformation. It’s a term you’ll hear bandied about in discussion across all sectors. And it gets a lot of hype, often being lauded as a money-saving miracle worker.

This is true to an extent – effective digital transformation projects can cut costs and be hugely beneficial. But for local government, these projects must be much more than cosmetic fixes, such as launching an e-commerce site, giving staff tablets, or running customer service through social media.

While all of these activities are forms of digital enablement, they are likely to be a drop in the budgetary ocean – or worse, an expensive mistake – if they are poorly planned, or tacked onto services that were designed and established long before the advent of the internet.

As a result, many councils have been going back to the drawing board to overhaul their services to incorporate technology from the ground up. And this is what we at AdEPT consider to be true digital transformation. I have included some examples of this at the bottom of this blog – projects that are especially impressive given the challenges of the past decade.

One of the common themes in these examples is cloud migration. Put simply, this is the act of moving processes, data, applications and resources out of on-premise systems, into a cloud-based system.

Cloud migration in local government

When it comes to cloud migration in a local authority, the responsibility usually lies with the Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer. However, because such projects affect everyone in the organisation – and it’s vital all staff are on board such significant changes – I’d like to offer an analogy for our readers who don’t work in IT.

To me, cloud migration resembles the process of moving house. When you do this, unfortunately, you can’t just appear by magic in your new home.

There are many reasons you might move, and we all do so in the hope of a positive outcome. So you start by considering the size and type of property you need, what you can afford, and how it will suit your household. You’ll also research the area – is it near your workplace and schools, does it have good transport links and attractive local amenities?

Then you’ll consider the finer details. What might your new bills cost? How will your utilities change? Will you need new services, like fuel for a different heating system? Will your children take to their new bedrooms? Will you need a lawnmower? Will the home be right for you in the future – could you need an extension in five years’ time?

Once you’ve answered these questions and chosen your dream home, you’ll start the process of selling and buying. And with that comes another long list of questions, tasks and paperwork.

Then, you’ll move. But not before you’ve organised removal services, carefully packed up your belongings and checked every last cupboard to make sure it’s empty. By this point, you’ll have also switched your utilities, redirected your post and shared your new address with your loved ones.

And then, finally, you can settle into your new home. Invariably, there’ll be wrinkles to iron out – but ultimately, you’ll have gone through this major, stressful, change for the best. 

A successful cloud migration project has similarities to this process, not least because it requires an enormous amount of upfront assessment and planning.

This is because, in any organisation, such a project can affect hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people – both customers and staff – and can impact everything from an employee’s swipe card to entire rooms of expensive hardware. It can change how and where people work, how customers might interact with your organisation and how you provide your products and services.

Additionally, in local government, cloud migration is about much more than the functioning of a business – and the bottom line. It affects the very lives of citizens – the people who rely on those essential services provided by our councils.

Cloud migration should be as much an exercise in careful, considered planning as it is migration. And with this, it offers significant gains.

Moving to the cloud: what’s in it for local government?

Being an IT company with a long history of helping the public sector adopt cloud services, it’s tricky to answer this question without sounding a little biased.

However, moving to the cloud does bring substantial benefits – and many local authorities are already realising this, as shown in the examples below. Additionally, these benefits can mitigate some of the challenges I’ve outlined in this blog. They include:

  • Financial: given the economic picture described earlier, reducing costs is often the most attractive benefit of moving to the cloud. Such savings typically come through data storage, reduced capital investment, streamlined workflows and increased productivity. Cloud’s adaptability also brings financial benefits – see below.
  • Modernisation: cloud platforms often work as springboards to greater innovation. For example, both Microsoft’s and Google’s cloud environments offer analytics, automation, and no-code app development tools. Additionally, both platforms have integrated marketplaces where users can buy vetted apps from independent developers. With such an environment, it’s not hard to see how cloud platforms can be valuable starting point to satisfy the public’s appetite for digital services.
  • Data security: while this is invariably the top priority – and concern – for local authorities looking to migrate to the cloud, reputable providers also make this their number one priority. Impeccable security is crucial to vendors’ reputation and success, and they tend to invest heavily in security research and development for this reason. 
  • Flexibility: cloud-based environments are more conducive to flexible working. Having data and applications stored in the cloud means staff have easier and more flexible ways to access their work. This is especially beneficial for the widespread home and remote working that has emerged through the pandemic – and for council staff who may routinely be on the road, such as social workers.
  • Adaptability: in the past, many councils might have over-invested in hardware and systems as an insurance for the future, taking the view that ‘I’ll buy twice as much data storage than I need right now because I might need it in a year’s time’. While this is understandable, it has meant councils have seen enormous setup costs. Cloud services are different. Not only do typical pricing models often mean lower costs at the outset, it’s much easier to scale up and scale down cloud services.
  • Business continuity and disaster recovery: many cloud services started life as backup tools. With years of customer feedback under their belt, this means they have evolved to offer some of the most sophisticated backup functions on offer. Additionally, data in the cloud is available round the clock – and updates and patches often prove to be simpler than on-premise and physical upgrades, avoiding the need for system downtime.

Why cloud now? And what next?

In technology circles, discussion about cloud is neverending. But in truth, it is not a new topic. Central government has been championing its ‘cloud first’ policy since 2013 – and in fact, as long as the internet has existed, so too has the cloud.

When it comes to the digital transformation of local government, while there are examples of successful cloud adoption by councils, the projects tend to happen on a piecemeal basis – and for areas that are relatively straightforward, such as moving to Microsoft 365.

But, many councils want to go beyond this. They want their older, more complicated systems to work in the cloud – or a better alternative. Sometimes it’s seeing the art of the possible, and in our experience, there are more options available than might be immediately apparent. But all cloud migration work is a gradual process rather than an overnight switch. There is no such thing as a quick fix in the public sector – and given what’s at stake, rightly so.

Cloud vendors and technology companies must respect this. Cloud migration is not like installing a new piece of software or plugging in a new device. And it’s not about offering a particular product – or even mentioning a particular product – until the vendor has listened long and hard to the council – and not just IT staff, too.

Among many considerations, moving to the cloud is about understanding the IT landscape of the organisation, the infrastructure, the systems in place, the data held, and access rights and requirements. With such an extensive reach across different services provided by local authorities, this can be a complex exercise, so it’s essential to have the right method and support to undertake this.

At AdEPT, we start with our Cloud Readiness Assessment (CRA). As a specialist in local government cloud migration, we’ve developed this process to go beyond an IT audit, looking at existing systems, services and suitability, as well as the need for cloud migration. As with my house-moving analogy, we’ll help you answer the questions; we’ll find out what’s right for your organisation and the community you serve, and we’ll explore all the possibilities –including the things you might consider impossible.

We also believe that while councils are looking to innovate, a phased approach may be appropriate to provide a seamless transition. Any cloud migration plan that looks to change everything overnight is doomed to failure.

Beyond assessment

Once we have completed the CRA, the next step is to reduce the complexity of the IT environment that has evolved over many years. This includes reconfiguring, rehosting, retiring and consolidating systems and data in a way that is right for the organisation at the right time. While it might be easier to migrate some systems and services to the cloud, others may need to be reconfigured and rehosted before being migrated or retired at a later stage.

Additionally, working with us as a dedicated cloud migration provider offers other benefits. Helping staff access the systems they need to carry out offsite work on the go can substantially increase efficiency – and building in flexibility to adjust to seasonal fluctuation can be cost effective. A paid-for service can offer financial agility, too, with the ability to pay a consistent monthly service fee rather than outlay large capital expenditure. And having a dedicated IT support team can also reduce shadow IT, bringing all systems together, providing control and clear oversight of systems and applications across all departments. 

We can help

AdEPT has extensive experience in helping the public sector with its technology. We support more than 100 councils, the London Grid for Learning and the Cabinet Office with their technology. And last year, we completed a project to switch the entirety of Kent NHS – serving some 1.6 million citizens – to the new HSCN network.

We’ve helped these organisations to not only digitally transform – but to also identify opportunities for efficiencies, increase agility and provide high-quality, uninterrupted support for the public benefit.

I hope this blog gives you a useful introduction to our stance and our unique approach. But if you have any questions, you can get in touch with me through LinkedIn. Alternatively, you can call 0333 4002490 or email enquiries@adept.co.uk.

And as well as the examples below, you can find more useful information in the public sector section of our website, starting here.

Examples of cloud adoption in local government

Written by Paul Hutton

Business Development Manager, Cloud & Local Government Specialist