Federal officials have been hesitant to adopt cloud computing, especially compared to private industry.
Moving to the cloud — an industry buzzword that refers to accessing programs and services over the Internet rather than through traditional hardware and software — holds the potential to save federal agencies money and make them more efficient. Even so, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last year that uptake has been “uneven.”
Is the dream of rapid adoption of cloud in government still pie in the sky? Last month, nearly 30 leading government and private sector IT leaders — including chief information, technology and information security officers from a dozen federal agencies, and chief technology officers and executives from a dozen leading IT companies — met at FedScoop’s headquarters for a not-for-attribution discussion about how to guide the famously risk-averse government to the cloud.
Here were their top four ideas.
1. Focus on ironing out acquisition issues.
Anxieties about acquisition practices dominated the panel’s discussion. As one federal IT leader said, “It always comes back to contracts.” A key issue was helping agencies move to a consumption-based model, which can be a challenge for agencies used to buying product services.
Officials also talked about the importance of understanding who owns the information that is stored in a third-party cloud. One official said his agency has been in legal discussions about what happens to stored data if a cloud services provider goes out of business.
2. Concentrate on security, privacy, trust and transparency.
Mitigating risk also remains a major issue for agencies moving to the cloud. Government agency and private industry officials discussed how they could foster trust between the sectors — and how companies could better address agency’s worries about security.
One representative from the private sector complained his company spends a large amount of money to adhere to Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program standards. “It’s tremendous investment,” he said. “But we’re not seeing some agencies migrate to FedRAMP.”
“Are we transitioning the focus to … feeling sorry for industry right now?” one government official retorted. “The challenges on the government side are extremely demanding too.”
Later, a participant noted that before he could acquire cloud services, he was required to conduct a supply-chain risk management assessment. “How do I do due diligence when it’s a community-based cloud environment?” he asked. He can’t, after all, dictate what pieces of hardware and software these private companies buy, he said.
The supply-chain issues represent a larger dilemma, participants said: making sure agencies have enough information about the clouds’ security to satisfy the concerns of their compliance and security officers.
Risk will always be an issue when moving to new technologies, one participant said. But he said risks exist even if the government remains stagnant on IT.
3. Emphasize people, culture and leadership.
It can be a challenge to convince workers that a shiny, new cloud system is better than that server under their desk. It requires a culture change and guidance from senior leadership, panelists said.
One government representative said his agency chief proclaimed the unit would start using email in the cloud — “so we all moved.” He added, “If leadership comes, people will follow.”
Several panelists agreed. “We don’t have a money problem,” said one federal official. “I think the leadership … is a much bigger opportunity than the size of the budget.”
But one concern was that technologists trained on the legacy systems would be hesitant to embrace something new. And agencies often don’t have the resources to train their workers on the latest innovations. IT offices frequently have to rely on half-day conferences or hourlong webinars sponsored by industry to fill that role, said one government official.
At the same time, another IT official said there’s room for workers who need to understand various pieces of hybrid systems.
“If you look at an agency that’s trying to move to the cloud, it isn’t all or nothing,” she said.
4. Modernize enterprise architecture.
At the end of the discussion, one private industry representative asked the government officials on the panel whether their enterprise systems were holding them back. Several nodded.
“We have been struggling with enterprise architecture,” one govie said. He said senior leadership didn’t understand the challenges the enterprise architecture poses as the agency tries to innovate. “Some organizations seem to get it, and some don’t. It’s a struggle.”
One person said agencies need to update their enterprise architecture with modern approaches. “Some of the legacy-based applications will never move to the cloud because they don’t belong in the cloud,” he said. But he encouraged agencies to “put their toe in the water.”