Changing Times

 

Let’s be honest. One big reason federal agencies are moving swiftly to shift data and applications to the much-touted cloud is to save money. The prospect of paring as much as $5 billion per year from the $80 billion federal IT budget by outsourcing data storage and operations is irresistible to cash-strapped agency officials, not to mention their overseers in Congress and the Obama administration.

But if that were the only impact of the headlong rush to move key federal operations to cloud-based systems, it wouldn’t be worth devoting a big chunk of an issue of a magazine like this one to the trend. The reason we’ve chosen to do so this month is that the cloud has the potential to fundamentally change the way agencies and the people who work for them get government’s business done.

After all, as Joe Marks reports in this issue, if everybody is working in the cloud, what’s the advantage to being in the office, as opposed to at home or in some other location? Theoretically at least, making applications available via the Internet levels the playing field. And for managers who may not have led the charge in terms of innovation, it leaves them no choice but to adapt to working in a new and different way.

That, in turn, could give a long-awaited boost to telework in the federal government—especially when coupled with another budget driver: the increasing cost of office space. And it could increase the pace at which agencies adopt mobile technologies.

Even more significantly, the cloud could hold the key to fundamentally changing the way government delivers services. One relatively small example: Adam Stone reports in this issue how the Securities and Exchange Commission’s
Office of Investor Education and Advocacy turned to Salesforce.com to manage interactions with the public. As a result, connections via email, Web, mail, fax and phone are all handled in a single electronic system. 

In larger government organizations, the sheer scale of operations makes moving to the cloud a daunting challenge—even for something seemingly as simple as adopting a new email system. One example: Stone reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration migrated 36 terabytes of data in 19 separate email systems— 150 million messages in all—to its new Google Apps-based system.

Right now, email shifts like this—large and small—are the highest-profile cloud computing efforts in the federal sector. But they are just the beginning. That makes it a little hard at this stage to separate the hype from the reality when it comes to the future of the cloud. And there’s another factor that makes projecting what a cloud-based government will look like difficult: Security standards have just begun to emerge. Aliya Sternstein notes in her report this month that FedRAMP, a fast-track security certification process, is just beginning to take off. It could be two years or so before agencies begin seeing the benefits of a streamlined process for picking pre-approved cloud products. 

Patience may be required, because one thing is for sure: The imperative to fundamentally change the way government does business isn’t going to go away.

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