Friday, October 10, 2008

Transforming Government with “Cloud Computing”

No one would be surprised to hear that the District of Columbia government gets our electricity from wall outlets and our drinking water from the tap. What might open some eyes is our use of “cloud computing,” an exciting new approach to provide email and manage our procurement much like we use these other utilities.

"Cloud computing" provides an innovative way for technology consumers—including governments—to obtain technology resources and services simply and cost-effectively. Cloud computing is to technology what the electrical grid is to the delivery of electricity or the public water-supply system is to the delivery of water. Once, every household, or every little town, had its own generator; every farm or village once had its own well. Households or villages had to maintain their generators and wells and protect them from weather, theft, and other harm. Today, consumers obtain electricity by simply plugging an appliance into a wall outlet and get clean water by simply turning on the tap—because large public utilities like the power company or the water and sewer company can meet these needs. In the same way, we can meet technology needs by reaching into the "cloud". In the cloud are companies like Google that maintain extensive technology resources, leveraging economies of scale to offer these resources to customers at a reasonable price.

With cloud computing, government technologists can obtain services from the cloud instead of maintaining their own hardware, software, and facilities and staff to house and operate them. Take email, for example. The District's email system serves 38,000 people. Previously, providing this basic technology service required us to purchase and maintain hundreds of servers, software to run on them, data centers to house the servers, security staff to protect the data centers, electricity to power them, and staff to operate and manage all this hardware, software, and real estate. In addition to incurring tremendous cost, we always had to worry about strains on the capacity of our email system, and we were effectively in many other businesses besides technology—like power, real estate, and security. With cloud computing, we can now obtain virtually unlimited email capacity at a much lower cost. Our technologists can get out of the real estate, power, and security businesses and instead focus on deploying technology solutions to meet our government service needs—like improving community policing, human services, education, and "back office" government operations.

This new strategy has already helped the District inaugurate a new era of transparency in one of the most time-consuming aspects of government operations—procurement. Using technology tools obtained via cloud computing, we have created government wiki sites to publish Requests for Proposals, solicit feedback, and share updates with vendors and the public for major procurements such as a new Evidence Warehouse for the police department and staff augmentation for our technology agency. We have harnessed YouTube to broadcast bidder conferences and other information to vendors and the public. Our cloud computing tools have also helped us launch procurements faster by enabling government employees to collaborate in creating procurement documents online.

The result is not just faster procurements, but more effective and more equitable ones. All interested parties get the same information at the same time, and a much broader range of potential vendors can participate than ever before. With more vendors participating, we extend procurement opportunities to more businesses, and government saves money through broader competition.

In the background, cloud computing is transforming everyday work life for District employees by arming them with more flexible, convenient tools for doing their jobs. Our cloud computing tools now allow employees to connect to District systems from anywhere they have an Internet connection, and to use the consumer technology they know and like—cell phones, iPods, PDAs, YouTube, Facebook, and more.

Ultimately, cloud computing will help us create the mobile, "anytime, anywhere" workforce. Government employees like police officers, human services caseworkers, building inspectors, and teachers can spend more time—as they should—keeping people safe, caring for citizens in need, teaching our children, and keeping buildings up to code--and still have all the benefits of government technology resources. As a result, customers from tenants to students will have much more immediate access to District employees and can make their needs known and voices heard more powerfully and effectively than in the past. Workers who need to telecommute or adopt flexible schedules will be able to do so even more easily without losing access to technology tools or compromising their effectiveness. Our ability to offer more innovative, flexible, customer-friendly technology will also help us meet the challenge of recruiting new employees.

Last but certainly not least, cloud computing allows us to make smarter use of taxpayer dollars. Overall, the fees we'll pay for cloud computing services will be less than our costs of buying, maintaining, housing, and operating hardware and software. In addition, our specific uses of cloud computing offer many opportunities for savings. To cite one simple example, with our new procurement wiki sites, we can upload videos of bidder conferences to YouTube quickly at no cost—whereas in the past, producing and posting a single video cost the government thousands of dollars. Multiply this savings by thousands of procurements each year, and the savings mount up fast.

Cloud computing offers enormous opportunities to shift our government resources from maintaining basic technology support to creating innovative technology solutions that improve government services. Cloud computing sits at the heart of our efforts to make government services more effective, accessible, and transparent. By deploying this powerful new tool, we'll continue to transform the District government for the benefit of customers and employees alike.