Female government employee working on a computer

Azure Government: The Cloud Solution the Public Sector Has Been Waiting for?

24 Jul 2017 by Debbie Malone

Strengthening cybersecurity, modernizing IT systems and maximizing efficiency are crucial U.S. government imperatives from the federal level down. In practice, accomplishing these goals means implementing and enforcing better compliance standards, consolidating costly data center resources and embracing IT solutions that drive efficiency. But many agencies have struggled to manage growing IT demands, costs and risks.

As a result, data breaches have increased — not only in number but also in severity. IT costs to maintain inflexible systems that can’t scale to the needs of the public sector have reached unsustainable levels. And, as more services in the private sector go digital, constituents increasingly expect and demand the same kind of convenience and ease of use from digital transactions within the public sector.

Moving to the cloud and embracing a mobile-first strategy might seem like an obvious solution, but government data and systems can’t be stored on just any platform. A viable cloud solution would have to provide broad support for a wide range of programming languages and operating systems. It would also have to adhere to strict compliance and security standards. That’s why Microsoft developed Azure Government — a government cloud solution developed from the ground up to meet the rigorous standards of the public sector.

Government cloud security and compliance

Security and compliance — arguably the two most critical considerations — are two areas where Microsoft Azure Government stands out. For starters, agencies receive a physically isolated instance of the platform — built exclusively for government clients and their solutions providers. This includes mission-critical security and compliance services, such as Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) and Department of Defense (DOD) compliance certifications, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) state-level agreements, the ability to issue Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Business Associate Agreements and support for IRS 1075. In fact, Azure Government offers some of the most comprehensive certification options available, most of which are tailored to U.S. federal, state and local compliance standards.

As an added layer of protection, the hardened, geo-redundant data centers devoted to Azure Government are all located in the United States at least 500 miles apart from each other. They’re also staffed exclusively by U.S. personnel who have passed extensive background screenings. In addition, Azure Government supports multiple hybrid scenarios for building and deploying solutions on premises or in the cloud.

Cloud-based tools that drive efficiency

According to a 2017 survey by the Center for Digital Government, email (84%), document management (78%) and videoconferencing (70%) were the top three cloud-based tools government employees believed would most improve productivity, as shown in Figure 1.

Bar graph showing which cloud-based tools most improve employee productivity
Figure 1
 

Cloud-based email, document management and videoconferencing with Azure Government have the potential to provide the public sector with significant savings on hardware and staffing by reducing or eliminating the need for on-site servers. It could also speed and simplify disaster recovery, provide employees with convenient, anywhere access to mission-critical files and make it easier for staff to collaborate on projects — all of which would enable staff to work more efficiently. But the potential gains go far beyond that.

A Microsoft case study released in December discussed how the California Department of Social Services leveraged Surface devices, the Azure platform and Office 365 software to transition its paper systems to digital ones. The shift enabled mobile case workers to remotely access and modify case files and collaborate in real time. Not only did the department’s digital transformation result in reduced service request processing times, but it also significantly improved citizen engagement by enabling employees to provide on-the-spot information to help citizens make crucial decisions about the care of loved ones — a huge win in terms of constituent service delivery.

Maximizing benefits of cloud-based apps

The gains agencies can make by transitioning to the cloud are wide-ranging. According to the Center for Digital Government survey, as seen in Figure 2, 61% of respondents said the biggest benefit of cloud-based applications is easier systems access for remote employees, followed by real-time updates to records and databases (39%), increased teamwork and collaboration (34%), greater employee productivity (32%) and cost savings (16%). And the changes seen in the California Department of Social Services certainly support this.

Bar graph showing what the primary benefits of having cloud-based tools or applications are
Figure 2
 

However, the Azure Government platform also allows agencies to customize deployment, supporting a wide range of operating systems, programming languages, frameworks, tools, databases and devices so that agencies can still leverage existing investments. It has also been engineered to provide consistency across public, private and hosted clouds.

With limited IT budgets, many state and federal agencies can’t afford to transition to the cloud and revamp all of their existing apps and operating systems at the same time. The versatility and flexibility of Azure Government in this regard provide the cost-effectiveness the public sector needs to migrate to a cloud platform — while also addressing the many security and compliance challenges agencies now face.

Removing barriers to government cloud adoption

Among the challenges preventing agencies from migrating systems to the cloud, respondents to the Center for Digital Government survey cited security and privacy concerns (41%), legacy systems (32%) and a lack of financial resources (32%) as top concerns, as depicted in Figure 3. But these challenges aren’t unique to state and local government. 

Bar graph showing what obstacles people had to overcome to adopt cloud-based tools
Figure 3
 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2016 report that stressed the need for federal agencies to address legacy systems. The GAO found that operations and maintenance spending has been increasing over the last seven years and now accounts for more than 75% of agency IT budgets. In fact, there was a $7.3 billion decline in 2017 development, modernization and enhancement spending compared to 2010.

Many of the legacy IT systems still in use are riddled with vulnerabilities that leave public sector systems open to attack. According to the 2016 U.S. Government Cybersecurity Report by SecurityScorecard, government organizations ranked last in cybersecurity performance. That’s not good news for a nation increasingly under the threat of cyberattacks perpetrated by foreign governments and organized hacker groups, as well as cybercriminals acting alone.

Azure Government provides a way for federal, state and local agencies in the public sector to simultaneously modernize legacy systems and cut costs while implementing a more secure IT infrastructure that drives increased operational workflow efficiency. It can also help agencies meet directives like those outlined in a May 2017 presidential executive order, which aims to rebalance the scales on public sector IT spending and shift them in favor of modernization and stronger cybersecurity.

With the need for government IT modernization growing more urgent, the Microsoft Azure Government cloud platform could remove barriers to cloud adoption and provide the kind of game-changing improvements agencies need to keep government data and constituent data safe, enhance delivery of public services, and support a more scalable, mobile and agile IT strategy. 

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