Almost everyone has heard of the “cloud,” as a result of advertising by computer companies and frequent mentions in the news media. “Cloud” refers to technology resources used by an organization that are not at their own location, but available over the global data communications network (otherwise called the Internet).  Moreover, the cloud is not just a question of getting access to some big data center in the sky; ultimately, it means gaining authorized access to any data or computing resource that is part of the Internet, and even combining data and software components from physically distant computers.

Public officials may have heard about how the cloud is being used in the public sector. For example, the United States Conference of Mayors had a session on this at its 2011 meeting where various mayors spoke about how their cities were using such services as shared email “in the cloud.” At the National Association of Counties, there have been sessions describing a cloud that is restricted to trusted government agencies at the state and local levels — what some call the “private cloud” because its services are not available to every organization, thus helping preserve the privacy and integrity of government data.

But the reasons state and local government officials might want to use the cloud are not often explained.  This post will describe the various ways that the cloud can provide strategic value to state and local governments.

Cost Savings

Most people have first heard of the cloud as a means of saving money, which is especially attractive at a time of tighter budgets. So instead of buying hardware and software, a government agency rents what it needs, when it needs it. This approach means you can shift from using bonds and debt service to an approach that matches your IT budget with the real demand each year.

And, often, the software services available in the cloud, such as email, can cost less per employee than licensing equivalent software in-house.

Resilience, Flexibility & Faster Technology Adoption

Potential cost reduction is not all there is to the story. There are other positive benefits as well.

First, cloud enables your government to survive a major disaster, whether man-made or natural. With the cloud, as long as your employees can connect to the Internet, regardless of location, they will be able to continue operations. This is crucial during disasters, when people depend on the government to continue to operate.

Second, the cloud can increase government flexibility. Email is a good example.  Email that is hosted in the cloud is available to your employees no matter where they are — on the road or in their normal office.  (There are other ways to try to imitate this result, but those approaches are more demanding of your IT staff than using the cloud.) Flexibility also includes being able to respond to peak demand, since resources available in the cloud are vastly larger than any demand your government might require.

The third related benefit is faster adoption of technology. With traditional budgeting approaches, adoption of new technology may not be possible until the last technology investment has been amortized. In the cloud, you can jump on new technologies quicker because that financial obstacle no longer exists.

Collaboration and Data Sharing

The cloud makes it easier to connect from one government agency to another, which means that they can collaborate and share data more easily.  This helps break down silos that annoy citizens and make public programs ineffective. (Beyond breaking down silos, the cloud also enables government to reduce or eliminate the duplication of expensive data centers.)

Focus on Citizens

The cloud also helps your staff focus on what’s important. If you do not consider IT to be a strategic tool or core competence of your government, then clearly it makes sense to depend upon the resources of the cloud rather than trying to build equivalent expertise within your own government.

Even if you view IT as a strategic tool — and I hope you do — the cloud enables your IT staff to shift from running data center operations to focusing on services they can deliver to citizens.

The cloud is more than just a good way to save some money; it also has strategic value as a means to govern better.

Stay tuned to the Cisco Government blog for the next installment of the cloud for local government blog series or click here to register and reserve your copy of the complete compilation of the blog series, including this blog as well as a variety of cloud resources, which will be available in May.

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