Finally, the focus on building cloud skills should not be limited to technology staff. The biggest challenges to digital transformation are often challenges with budgets, contracts, or other internal business processes.18 With greater knowledge about how cloud works, contracting staff can find novel and more cost-effective ways to buy needed resources, while financial management staff may be able to find new sources of funding to pay for cloud services such as software-specific appropriation categories.19 Both contract and financial management staff can serve as cloud-first champions within an organization, helping prevent unnecessary spending on physical hardware if the cloud could meet a business need faster and cheaper. As a result, building basic cloud fluency among contracting and financial management staff can be a significant accelerator to getting the most out of cloud.
Adapt the organization, don’t just adopt technology
As government organizations move into cloud and seek to apply cloud to their core missions, merely bolting the new technology onto existing processes will be of little use. To realize the true transformational benefits of cloud, organizations need to make adjustments to how business is done.20 Government agencies should not just adopt cloud, but adapt themselves to cloud to get the most out of it.
Maryland’s cloud-based human services network is a good example. MD THINK (Maryland’s Total Human-services Information Network) is a cloud-based system created to break down data silos between agencies. It aimed to make data discoverable by creating a shared cloud platform with shared data repositories between the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Department of Juvenile Services, and the Department of Health to provide more seamless services for the state’s neediest citizens.21
The platform reinvented technology in Maryland by moving 40+ applications, development environments, and data to the cloud.22 The state used agile methodology to develop the new platform and moved applications to cloud in a phased manner by starting with long-term care in 2018. Over the next three years, the state moved applications for child welfare, cash assistance programs, SNAP, and child support.23 But the applications were not just lifted and shifted, i.e., physical servers’ files were not simply copied to the virtual cloud environment. Instead, the state opted to develop a new core platform in MD THINK and applications were rearchitected, moved to cloud, and deployed in a phased manner.24 For example, previously, child welfare caseworkers had to login to three different applications to access information about a case, and a simple lift and shift would have just moved the three applications to cloud with caseworkers still needing to access three systems. Hence, the state rebuilt one single integrated application, allowing for an entirely new way of doing work for caseworkers.25
Deployment also considered the human factors in significantly shifting how business was done, using pilots to demonstrate success and build demand from other agencies. For example, in October 2019, MD THINK’s child welfare application was deployed as a pilot in Washington County, followed by Anne Arundel county in January 2020. Before the pilot, caseworkers would go to the field, take painstaking notes, and later come back to office and enter the same data in multiple systems. The pilot provided caseworkers with mobile devices, allowing them to add case information remotely in one system, and thus significantly reduced their paperwork burden. Other counties also jumped on the modernization bandwagon as they watched the caseworkers of these counties working remotely, entering data via their phones, and connecting through video conferences—all from the safety of their homes. “It was like a Eureka moment for all the other county directors,” says Subramanian Muniasamy, chief technology officer at Maryland DHS. “They realized MD THINK provided effective, efficient tools for responding to COVID-19, and then they wanted their applications implemented quickly too.”26
When government organizations are willing to adapt to new technologies, the benefits can continue to emerge over time as well. Once the initial five-year plan is implemented by 2022, MD THINK plans to onboard systems from agencies like labor, education, and natural resources. “We hope to expand beyond health and human services. That is our goal,” remarks Muniasamy.
Adapting the technology, processes, and structure of any organization can be difficult. So, what can government technology leaders do today to make sure the benefits of cloud that emerged during the pandemic do not evaporate?
- Follow a road map and use a playbook. The first challenge facing CIOs in institutionalizing recent cloud gains is knowing what decisions need to be made. A road map can help chart where the organization is headed and how it wants to get there, as well as document the progress they have already made on that road map. This can help identify goals for how to use cloud to improve the mission, which legacy applications can and should be moved, and where roadblocks may emerge. For example, if an organization wants to move major applications to cloud, does it have the bandwidth available to handle those daily loads? Then, as issues such as those roadblocks emerge, a playbook can enable the organization to think through those issues in a systematic manner, helping to ensure that no major considerations are overlooked.
- Assess the ecosystem. Cloud is, by definition, a team sport; so, understanding who is or can be on an organization’s team should be a key first step. This not only includes cloud service providers but providers across the tech stack including middleware, databases, hardware, and more. Even other government organizations with similar challenges or capabilities can be important nodes in an organization’s ecosystem. Mapping out the ecosystem can not only accelerate a cloud journey by finding the needed resources, but also helps organizations to do so more securely. Responsibility for different aspects of security can vary widely between different models of cloud offerings such as infrastructure-as-a-service to software-as-a-service. Gaining clarity on who in the ecosystem is responsible for what can help avoid any significant gaps that attackers can exploit.
- Drive cloud governance into the business. If government organizations hope to use cloud to improve the mission, then mission leaders must be involved in decision-making from the start. This means not only including mission leaders in technology decisions from the start, but also making sure that structures like app stores and data-sharing agreements are in place so that one mission unit can benefit from the innovations of another. Finally, it also means using cloud itself to improve governance. Quantifying the overall cost and benefit of technology tools can be difficult, but usage data from cloud itself can often help in difficult budget decisions. Imposing cloud financial operations (FinOps) discipline on an organization can help bring clarity to costs and uncover the difficult-to-quantify mission benefits of cloud.27 With the cloud success that many agencies saw firsthand during the pandemic, this can prove to be an easy starting ground for getting mission leaders’ support for ongoing cloud initiatives.
- Create pathways for people. Attracting, training, and retaining the right talent is key to success in cloud. Having opportunities to grow and develop is among the top drivers of employee engagement. Organizations with stronger cultures of learning and development have 30–50% higher retention rates than their peers.28 However, these goals can often seem at odds with some personnel systems. Creating career pathways specifically for talent with cloud skills can help ensure that workers have the opportunity to grow and find new challenges without having to leave the organization.
We have entered the third era of cloud for government. This is both an exciting time, but also an uncertain one, as government leaders can struggle with difficult decisions about where and how to make use of cloud. The good news is that the inherent flexibility and scalability of cloud makes it well-suited to handle many of government’s toughest challenges. However, if agencies are to realize the most significant benefits cloud has to offer, they should not just adopt the technology, but also adapt their organizations to match. Doing so can help ensure that the best services reach citizens not just today, but for years to come.
Appendix: Data sources and methodology
Federal government spending data used in figures 1, 2, 4, and 5 was sourced from Bloomberg Government. To estimate Federal spending for different cloud use cases in figures 4 and 5, we analyzed the free text description fields describing the nature of each federal contract. Given the disparities in how these fields are populated, the numbers in figures 4 and 5 represent an intentional undercount so that the trends in each use case can be accurately reflected and are not overshadowed by unrelated trends that only happen to share similar keywords. To estimate the spending for the remainder of FY21 and account for a delay in spending data for defense and intelligence, we used an exponential smoothening model that considers trend and seasonal patterns.
The cloud-related skills data used in figure 6 was compiled from an expert-curated list of cloud-related skills using data drawn from Burning Glass and Deloitte’s proprietary Human Capital Data Lake. To understand the trend over time, we analyzed the demand for those skills via job posting data from Burning Glass over the last decade.