For the better part of a decade federal agencies have been pushed to move to the cloud. The first step on this journey to the cloud came in the form of the Cloud First initiative in 2010, followed almost a decade later by a shift to the Cloud Smart policy in 2019.
The evolution of the federal cloud computing strategy over the course of the decade reflected both a maturation in technology and also in the benefits and challenges that came with shifting work loads, applications, and data out of traditional data centers and into the cloud. As former Federal CIO, Suzette Kent, shared, the Cloud Smart policy was designed to avoid pushing agencies to move everything to the cloud and instead to focus on “ensuring the technology fits the mission that you’re trying to serve.” Compared to when agencies first started on their journey to the cloud, they now have a lot more choice on who to partner with. In addition, software vendors have introduced new modern technology which is licensed in a software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model.
Still, despite this guidance and even when agency IT leaders have identified a mission-critical and cloud-ready need, it can be challenging to even get started on the journey to the cloud. According to Ann E. Blakely, principal for the Enterprise Solutions and Services practice at Baker Tilly, “federal agencies are spending millions of dollars and years of man hours on maintaining legacy systems. As we are meeting with technology leaders in the DoD, they are determining that it no longer makes sense for them to continue to make investments in older dated technology.”
But how do agencies know when they’ve reached that tipping point and can move boldly forward on their digital transformation journey?
For Blakely while the Cloud Smart policy provides a strong framework for starting an agency’s journey to the cloud, neither federal mandate nor technology should be the drivers for moving to the cloud. “More than technology or mandates, the agency must be ripe for change. These projects are most successful when driven by a strategic objective for digital transformation or an impending event like loss of legacy system support. These factors create a sense of urgency and one that will have a real impact on agency employees,” she shared. “Human Resources (HR) projects can be a good place to start as systems are often out of date, place a huge burden on both administrators and users, and provide poor employee experiences that can affect morale, tenure, and overall mission success.”
Instead of just ‘lifting and shifting legacy technology design’ Blakely recommends using the journey to the cloud as an opportunity to collaborate with stakeholders and review business processes, operating procedures, and end-user satisfaction in a structured way. “Regardless of the project, one of the best practices I have identified from working with federal agencies is to identify all business stakeholders and bring them to the table,” she shared. “The journey to the cloud is not just about IT, it’s about everyone who is directly affected by the project, especially the end user, and asking for their input frequently, hearing their challenges and concerns, and building a plan that addresses stakeholder issues.” From that starting point, Blakely mentioned that it is important to build incremental success metrics into the journey. “The advantage of implementing cloud technology is that you can stage the deployments incrementally to demonstrate project successes and wins throughout the transformation. This strategy reduces the potential for project team fatigue and builds stakeholder buy-in with each go-live to support system adoption.
Another of Blakely’s best practices is for agencies to consider software providers who have built modern cloud technology. “Agencies will want to look for a software provider that is investing in their product and delivering continuous updates and improvements that enhance functionality and the user experience,” she shared. “These are some of the reasons that Baker Tilly partners with Oracle. They’ve invested billions of dollars in their cloud solution and are continually improving it. This enables agencies to continue to update and refine processes over time to support the changing needs of their workforce and ensure they can support their core mission.
While there are still many variables that need to be accounted for as a federal agency begins – and completes – their journey to the cloud, the one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that success is possible. “In some respects starting on that journey does require a bit of a leap of faith because the mission doesn’t stop, the people don’t stop, and there’s never going to be an opportunity for system-wide down-time,” shared Blakely, “but if you’ve laid the groundwork by identifying a mission-driven project, built stakeholder coalitions, and engaged a technology partner that can articulate both the solution’s virtues and the agency’s goals in a clear roadmap, then the journey to the cloud need not be a daunting one.”