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In late 2010, when then-federal CIO Vivek Kundra released the government’s “Cloud First” policy, he emphasized the mandate’s potential to save the government billions of dollars. The policy stipulates that federal agencies must implement cloud-based solutions whenever a secure, reliable and cost-effective cloud option exists; and begin reevaluating and modifying their individual IT budget strategies to include cloud computing.

The mandate is great in theory, but not so simple to put into practice. As of late 2014, a mere 2 percent of federal agency IT budgets had been allocated to cloud services, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

Before government agencies can move to the cloud on a large scale—and transform into truly digital businesses—federal IT leaders will need to address a number of challenges. Some are unique to the public sector, and others are shared by both public and private sectors.

1. Meeting federal security requirements

This has been an issue and will probably always be top of mind for CIOs, both in government and in the private sector. In a January 2015 report, the Congressional Research Service listed meeting federal security requirements as one of the barriers to government cloud adoption. According to the report, this is because the requirements are regularly updated to address new threats, vulnerabilities and technologies.

Current federal CIO Tony Scott recognizes this issue and has been working hard to change government agency leaders’ perception of cloud security. In a recent Google for Work webcast, Scott said that the big cloud providers—Google, Microsoft and Amazon, for example—“have the incentive, they have the skills and abilities, and they have the motivation to do a much better job of security than any one company or organization.”

US CIO Tony Scott has been working hard to change gov't IT leaders' perception of cloud security.

US CIO Tony Scott has been working hard to change gov’t IT leaders’ perception of cloud security.

2. Encouraging the historically risk-averse to innovate

Citizens are the shareholders in government, and they hold leaders accountable. When a government initiative does fail, it usually makes headlines and becomes ammunition for opposing parties.

Accountability is central to democracy, and it wasn’t intended to stifle innovation. It’s the responsibility of federal IT leaders to consider the criticism, judge whether it’s accurate, and apply what they have learned from it to future efforts.

The best way to manage risk is not to avoid it, but rather to face it with careful planning and preparation. Run pilots to ensure a larger initiative is carried out smoothly. Plan for all aspects of a project, and solicit guidance from experienced colleagues and peers.

3. Planning despite uncertain budgets

Instead of launching massive upgrades every five years, federal agencies need to realize the enormous value of keeping up to date and move toward a system of updating and upgrading technology more frequently and in smaller chunks. Giant companywide projects require lump sum funding and multiyear planning. Minor updates do not.

4. Changing a deep-rooted organizational culture

This challenge is not unique to government. Public or private sector, changing an organization’s culture requires time, effort and, perhaps most importantly, an increased focus on employees, who feel the greatest impact of organizational change. Here are some ways federal IT leaders can inspire culture change:

  • Include employees without tech backgrounds in the planning and development process.
  • Create implementation plans that consider employees of every age, skill level, learning style and job function. This means providing a range of training and support—remote, self-help, high-touch assistance and traditional training.
  • Communicate the reasons for technology changes. For example, “Solution X will save the organization money, enable employees to do their jobs more efficiently, and increase security.” Keeping employees informed shows that they matter within an organization.

Scott acknowledged these challenges in a recent blog post. “It has been over four months since I was appointed the U.S. Chief Information Officer. In that time, I have come to appreciate both the complexity of Federal information technology (IT) as well as the unprecedented opportunity of technology to accelerate the quality and timeliness of services delivered to the American people,” he wrote.

In the post, Scott said that without a strong foundation, it is difficult for new initiatives to fully take root. Federal IT leaders need to create partnerships with program leaders, understand IT’s role in fulfilling the agency’s mission, and have a sense of IT spending’s direction. “This critical foundation does not exist consistently throughout the federal government,” he noted.

The most effective way for government to approach Cloud First, or any technology initiative, is by taking incremental steps to build on the foundation. IT leaders can start with changes that have limited user impact but that will provide savings and real value. Examples include moving emails from local email servers to Exchange Online, and moving to SharePoint Online. Email is an optimal place to start, as it’s one of the easiest to move to the cloud. It’s also less jarring than a move to Office Web Apps, for example.

Taking small steps like these enables IT and other support providers to increase end users’ comfort levels with new and existing technology, to slowly chip away the resistance to change across organizations, and to add more layers to the foundation.

What’s your point of view?

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