How cloud computing is making our lives easier

Picture: Microsoft
Picture: Microsoft
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The Internet, they say, has changed everything. By giving us access to a world of information and services, we’re no longer tied to office hours, to queues, and to telephone calls.

Meanwhile we’ve grown accustomed to the ease of use that comes with services like social media, expecting the same level of design and responsiveness from any other provider.

Businesses aren’t the only organisations affected by new technologies. Government, both local and national, has taken advantage of the Internet to streamline how they provide public services. In the UK, web services and mobile applications have opened up local councils and Government agencies around the UK to the whole world. From email newsletters to multi-channel call centres, we’re able to work with government in new ways, getting direct access to services that used to take weeks or even months.

Need a new parking permit? Go online. Need to report a failed street light? Go online. You only have to glance at your local council’s web site to see just how many of its services have an online component – and with the UK Government’s cloud-first IT directives and the growth of its G-Cloud marketplace, we’re only going to see more and more services making the jump to online.

In Scotland, a lot of this change is being driven by the availability of G-Cloud and similar frameworks, giving public service organisations a one-stop shop for the tools and skills they need to build these new applications. Being able to pick and choose from a catalogue means councils can quickly find applications and frameworks that can form the foundation of new, cost effective and often innovative, services. With all councils in Scotland under pressure to save on cost, whilst delivering transformational services, “cloud first” should become the norm as it is in many other parts of the UK already.

Cloud services are an important tool for local and national governments, allowing them to take advantage of both platform and infrastructure services to quickly roll out scalable new applications – both inside and outside their organisations. It’s this speed that’s key to the importance of the cloud. Instead of taking years to build new applications, IT teams can deliver code in months, or even weeks, and by taking advantage of new development methodologies and tools, can keep those systems running with regular updates. It’s a change that’s affecting both local and central government services, with the staff now able to deliver new software releases thanks to the Cloud.

Picture: Microsoft

Picture: Microsoft

Combining that approach with mobile applications can also improve relationships between citizens and local government. A basic app that let users report potholes can help prioritise road repairs, allowing road departments to see quickly just which issues affect the most people. Another app could be used to report missed bin collections, or report fly-tipping. There’s a growing number of community-driven applications that are being used to deliver information to local government services, taking advantage of new open data services.

Common data platform

One key to delivering effective e-government is delivering a common data platform to all departments. That’s what the States of Jersey has been doing. A common data model means it’s possible to have just one record for each citizen, detailing various contacts and the services being used. However, that means that data protection becomes increasingly important, using tools to control access to information on a role-basis, ensuring that only the information needed for a particular task is released.

That common data model can be tied to CRM tools, managing call centres and providing a framework for automating what had been resource-heavy business processes. Taking processes like these online can also reduce the stress associated with what can often be very trying personal circumstances – for example, in the way that Sunderland Council has streamlined the way its cemeteries work with funeral directors. Common citizen data models have also allowed neighbouring councils to share resources, using a single call centre for all their queries. Newham Borough Council, after transforming the way it delivers local services and significantly reducing costs using cloud technologies – are now looking at how they widen the benefits to all citizens in the area in a shared services model.

From email newsletters to multi-channel call centres, we’re able to work with government in new ways, getting direct access to services that used to take weeks or even months.

Cloud computing benefits

Cloud services can also be a route to considerable cost savings. By switching to Office 365 as part of an IT transformation programme, Wiltshire Council was able to cut its IT spend from £20 million to £15 million, a saving of 25%. That didn’t mean reducing services, either, as staff gained larger mailboxes and regularly updated software. Using the cloud also meant that staff could carry on working from home when bad weather closed council offices.

The international nature of cloud services can be a concern, especially where sensitive citizen records are being stored and processed. In response to recent developments, cloud vendors are beginning to bring services onshore, allowing records to be locked to specific local data centres. This should overcome any issues with data sovereignty, and satisfy regulatory concerns.

One of the first, a new Microsoft Cloud data centre region, was announced at Microsoft’s recent Future Decoded event. The new sites will open in 2016, and will initially host Azure and Office 365, with Dynamics CRM Online to follow. Microsoft is expecting a lot of interest from national and local government, with the Ministry of Defence using it to host its own private Office 365 instances as well as a foundation for Azure-based applications.

Building public services on the cloud makes a lot of sense. As platform cloud technologies allow rapid development of new applications, along with quick delivery, the public sector is able to innovate with less risk. By making municipal and locally administered services as easy to use and interact with as social networking and other platforms used by citizens on a daily basis, they also allow users quick access, at any time of day or night, avoiding queues and call centres. With gains for government and for citizens, it’s a winning strategy for everyone.

Newcastle City Council is enjoying the benefits of cloud computing. Picture: PA

Newcastle City Council is enjoying the benefits of cloud computing. Picture: PA

Case study: Newcastle City Council

Put yourself in the shoes of a Newcastle City Council social worker, in the past you might have had a lot of driving to do. Workers who went out to visit families often had to come all the way back to the office to update records before going out again to the next family. Also, communication between staff and citizens was slow and laborious. With reduced resources, Newcastle City Council was struggling to provide services with a legacy paper-based system for the 286,800 people who live, work and learn in Newcastle.

Working with Microsoft, Newcastle City Council modernised its operations with Office 365, Skype for Business and SharePoint. Now the cloud-based communication and collaboration has driven a real boost in staff productivity. They can update their records when they are out and about, without any need to keep popping back to the Civic Centre, while Skype for Business video conferencing saves travel time and cost when attendees are working at different sites.

Case study: Shropshire Council

When Shropshire Council learned it needed to cut £80 million from its budget over three years, it faced a stark choice. The council could make deep cuts to the services their citizens rely on, or it could find new, more efficient ways of operating that would deliver better service with fewer resources.

Shropshire Council began by taking a hard look at where its employees were spending their time. It noticed that social workers tend to lose critical hours shuttling back and forth between client visits and the council’s office. The council realised that if workers could stay out in the field and file their reports from mobile devices, they could avoid those costly trips back to the office and see more clients per day instead. Having fewer workers in the office at any one time meant that the council could also shrink its office footprint down to just 7 desks for every 10 workers.

This article was produced in partnership with Microsoft