How cloud-based technologies are helping the public service function more efficiently and safely
Forcing millions of people to work from home because of a pandemic provided a real-time opportunity to stress-test digital infrastructure. But allowing for business continuity during a medical emergency isn’t the only reason governments have spent years digitising their operations.
The shift to cloud-based technologies has been coming for some time. A recent Asia Development Bank (ADB) report details the reasons for and the impact of the change from using legacy systems and migrating to cloud-based services.
Managing the costs of running government information systems is one of the first benefits cited by the ADB in its June 2021 report. Getting rid of on-site data servers means equipment and maintenance costs nosedive.
The switch to a cloud solution for applications and data has meant, according to the ADB, that the Land Transport Authority in Singapore reported a 60% saving in costs. The Bureau of Customs in the Philippines said maintaining an older data system would cost an estimated $4.17 million whereas moving to a cloud-based solution would be “one-tenth the cost”.
Government is made more agile, the report states, with the adoption of new technology that enables a department to function even when there are peak periods in the use of online services. Revenue authorities responsible for tax collection, for instance, tend to be swamped when taxpayers rush to meet looming tax office deadlines.
The ADB report points to South Australia’s Department of Communities and Social Inclusion and its work in creating an automated contract system. This resulted in reducing the payment times to non-government organisations from four to six weeks to three days.
A similar change to a business permit and licensing system in the Philippines’ information and communications technology department meant applications and renewals of permits and licenses were processed within 30 minutes to half a day rather than the average two or three days.
The public sector keeps up with changes in technology that also impact other sectors of the economy when it switches from older technologies to those that are cloud-based. It also means employees in the public sector are trained in using new software and services designed to make working in government more efficient.
Authors of the ADB report state that the move towards cloud-based services means government institutions are “future-proofed”. In part, this is because service providers update their platforms and relevant software.
Using advanced technology is also seen as a way of making the public sector a more appealing workplace for recruits.
“Building public sector solutions with the latest cloud-computing resources and tools ensures that governments keep up with other sectors,” the ADB report says. “Attracting and retaining technology talents who want to serve in the public sector is essential if a government wants to retain in-house capabilities.
“Having to maintain an aging or outdated technology platform is demotivating and will accelerate a decline in service quality compared to that of other sectors.”
Digital technology when disaster strikes
A further key reason for moving to cloud-based technologies is to provide a better chance of business continuity when agencies are hit by natural disasters or cyber attacks. Western Australia’s land information authority, Landgate, is a prime example of how organisations benefit from having cloud-based data systems in place.
“[Landgate] was able to minimise the effect of a severe storm resulting in a power outage on its land titles system, a critical system that allows users to register and search for land titles, due to advanced cloud features that allowed for the cost-effective implementation of [business continuity and disaster recovery] measures,” the report says.
The coronavirus pandemic caused all levels of government in Australia to pivot from on-site work to working remotely using cloud-based solutions to ensure the business of government could continue.
Public servants working for the Australian federal government, for example, had a raft of materials published on the Australian Public Service Commission website such as circulars, newsletters and frequently asked questions to help public servants cope with working remotely.
This included general advice to government departments about how to approach working-from-home challenges that confronted staff with disabilities. There was guidance for managers to ensure employees received support that replicated the assistance they would receive at a conventional workplace.
The pandemic also saw governments and their departments across the globe use their cloud-based systems to enable staff to work from home, offer new services to taxpayers and attempt new things.
This doesn’t mean the use of technology delivered the desired results every time, according to the Institute of Government (IfG) based in the United Kingdom.
The IfG’s Whitehall Monitor 2021 notes that the UK had systems that enabled it to respond effectively to the pandemic and that investing in people’s skills, technology platforms and various partnerships “paid off”.
“Many new services were delivered in record time and the work of central government continued with only some minor snags,” the IfG report says.
A service registering a home coronavirus testing kit is one of the examples of new services launched during the pandemic.
“Most of these new digital public services are transactional; they have made it easier for people and businesses to exchange information, money or permissions with government, for example, to request information about customers who might be clinically vulnerable,” the IfG says.
A UK contact-tracing application didn’t fare quite so well and neither did an algorithm meant to make it easier to run school exams. That, the IfG’s report says, is due to people not properly analysing the problem before choosing a technological solution.
“The failures of both the contact-tracing app and exam algorithm stemmed from an attempt to solve a problem using a preferred technology as a starting point, rather than actually working from the problem and considering how best to use technology to solve it,” the IfG says.
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