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Pittsburgh has racked up some early successes with its cloud migration, but a combination of limited finances, technical debt and the need to educate employees slows progress.
A report released earlier this month found that state governments are becoming increasingly reliant on cloud computing. But while it can help optimize agency performance, experts warned that employees need training and encouragement to take advantage of what the technology offers.
The joint report from Accenture and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers found states are using cloud solutions to streamline operations and improve benefits claims processing and social services case management.
State and local government leaders are similarly enthused about the impacts cloud can have on customer experience, transparency and scalability but cautioned against migrating bad processes or existing technical debt to the cloud. Instead, they called for governments to think about how they can use the migration opportunity to revamp those processes for the better.
Jacque Rowden, assistant director of technology reliability in Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance, said it has taken some time for the city to embrace cloud technology. The city got a late start on IT modernization, partly due to the state’s 14-year supervision of the city’s budgetary process, which only ended in 2018.
The city thus still depends on a lot of legacy technology but is slowly migrating away from it. Rowden said “it takes more than a couple of days to recover from the technical debt that the city of Pittsburgh accumulated in about 10 to 18 years.”
But in the last few years, Pittsburgh has shown how it is using the cloud to streamline processes and increase transparency. Rowden pointed to a tool used by the Department of Public Works to track minor accidents and incidents involving city employees, like someone slipping on ice or tripping over an extension cord in an office.
Previously, those accidents and near misses were tracked on paper forms, and the likelihood of problems being resolved was slim as there was no way to monitor their progress. But since moving that reporting and tracking process to a cloud-based system, problems are fixed quicker because relevant departments are automatically notified, and repairs and remediations are logged in a user-friendly format in a central location, rather than tracked on paper forms that could be lost or misplaced.
Employees across the city can use the reporting system, which makes flagging potential hazards easier.
“We don't have to worry about who has what access to what; everybody just has an online form that they can fill out,” Rowden said last week during GovExec’s Cloud Summit in Washington, D.C. “And they're incentivized to do that.”
Migrating paper-based processes to the cloud is one thing, but increasing transparency often requires breaking down data silos and moving that information to the cloud. Rowden said Pittsburgh built its new public-facing crime mapping portal in the cloud and has combined various data sources in its Land Bank that tracks unused and unproductive real estate.
Breaking down those silos and increasing transparency requires a combination of legislation, financing and employee buy-in, Rowden said. The city passed a law in 2014 requiring its agencies to transparently and publicly share the data they collect, and Pittsburgh could be on track to meet that goal next year. Convincing elected officials of the need to spend money on cloud migration is also a challenge.
Getting employees on board with shifting to the cloud can be tricky, too. Rowden said managing cloud-based systems requires extensive IT training, and given the resource constraints governments face, they must take advantage of training offered by various vendors and private companies. It’s a “process of educating people, because you don’t know what you don’t know,” she said.
The employees who do not typically work with technology need training on the fundamentals of cloud computing, too. For example, Rowden said she had to bring the city’s finance team up to speed on cloud storage, explaining that it is not something physical that can be touched, like on-prem data storage.
If education doesn’t work to convince employees that the city’s future is in the cloud, more drastic actions may be needed. “Those who can't be ushered through the door must be left in the other room,” Rowden said.
While a successful cloud migration needs a “concerted effort” from policymakers, IT teams and the employee user base, Rowden said it continues to be a “long slog,” even with legislative mandates.