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EXCLUSIVE: Accelerating the Philippines’ Public Sector Technological and Analytical Capabilities

The Philippine Digital Transformation Strategy 2022 has been created to prioritise the country’s national interests and ambitions. Known as e-government 2.0, it aims to achieve strong citizen engagement through institutionalising closed-loop, multidimensional and multidirectional communication channels.

Built on the foundations of infrastructure development, human capital development and bridging the digital divide, the strategy is based on three pillars: economic transformation, people engagement and innovation.

With the current advancement, there is agreement within the public sector that data science, analytics and digital transformation can help to make better policies and deliver better services as the Philippines moves toward a new and better normal, as shared by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

Public sector agencies agree, across the board, that cloud computing is a wise option because it reduces the cost of purchasing, setting up, running and maintaining daily technology services. Cloud computing has been proven to empower the public sector with the ability to streamline technology operations and significantly improve efficiency in processing citizen-facing transactions.

Cloud computing enables the public sector to respond to citizen needs in a more agile manner and allows public services to be adapted as needed. It enables agencies to handle demand spikes without disrupting service because technology support can be appropriately scaled. For example, in cases where services may face peak demand periods, such as filing online tax returns just before a deadline.

Technically, cloud computing can boost public sector resilience by providing business continuity and disaster recovery services in the event of a natural disaster or other calamity affecting a country. Not only does cloud computing help mitigate cybersecurity risk, but it also provides stronger cybersecurity and privacy capabilities that would otherwise be difficult to resource and keep updated.

Cloud technology offers a system that simplifies operations and improves efficiency. With that edge, the public sector can reduce processes and streamline operations by using cloud-based tools. Additionally, cloud platforms can also provide the public sector with productivity tools to consolidate administrative and operational processes and exchange information with multiple stakeholders remotely.

It also offers methods for improving agility and scaling public services. The deployment of ICT resources is reduced from weeks to minutes when compared to traditional ICT infrastructure. Software solutions, data storage and computational capacity can be deployed in a cloud computing environment with a few mouse clicks, allowing agencies to be highly responsive to citizen needs. Cloud computing evens fosters a new collaborative approach, resulting in shorter development and improvement cycles.

Moreover, the advantages of the cloud in terms of business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) go beyond capital expenditure (CAPEX) savings. Using the cloud can improve resilience by enabling customised BCDR mechanisms to distribute or replicate data and workloads across multiple data centres in disparate geographic locations in near real-time.

In terms of implementation, the decree of a national cloud-first could signal the public sector’s willingness to embrace cloud computing but must be followed by a clear implementation plan or strategy, which can then be iterated to meet the needs of the country and incorporate lessons learned from previous implementations.

The OpenGovLive! Virtual Breakfast Insight on 2 March 2022 focused on providing the latest information on the benefits of a cloud-based model to enjoy cost savings and operational efficiencies with top public sector leaders from the Philippines.

Trends in a cloud-first future

Mohit Sagar Technologies to cope with new demands
Mohit Sagar: Staying relevant, cloud-first

Mohit Sagar, Group Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, OpenGov Asia, kicked off the session with his opening address.

“Culture has shifted drastically,” Mohit claims.  “If there is anything that COVID-19 has proven, it is that we can adapt quickly. Risks were taken because the world had no choice but to adapt.”

While some organisations have embraced the cloud-only policy, “all government is legacy,” Mohit asserts. Cloud is no longer an option but a must-have, especially in the prevailing culture of working from home.

Simple as cloud is to get on, Mohit opines, without a strategy, organisations will not know how to control it, use it correctly or maximise the benefits in their digital transformation journey.

Yet in its adoption, organisations are beginning to realise that security does not necessarily have to be compromised as they move to cloud. Security is not a reason to avoid cloud adoption, but a crucial aspect to be addressed in the inevitable move towards it.

Citizens and customers are moving faster, and services need to be available anywhere, anytime. This begs the question, “What will organisations do to drive that?” 

In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, new technology, tools and platforms are being churned out often and regularly. These are great changes but do not represent paradigm shifts. Cloud-first is a major paradigm shift.

Cloud has given us the flexibility to rapidly respond to the changes demanded by digital-savvy citizens. Agencies now have a better ability to not only move workload between an on-premises data centre and public cloud but make changes and upload data instantly.

Agencies that embraced cloud services proved more responsive and were able to continue operating remotely and serving their citizens, demonstrating agility, scalability and speed even amid a pandemic.

“Let the experts keep your glass full,” Mohit concludes, urging delegates to investigate partnerships that will free them up to improve citizen experience, instead of being caught up with the technicalities of the journey of cloud adoption.

Modernisation of data and migration to the cloud to foster public-sector innovation

Following Mohit’s address, Julian Lau, Head of ASEAN Emerging Markets – Worldwide Public Sector, Amazon Web Services, Tang Bing Wan, Principal Infrastructure – Architect, GovTech, and Bruce Liew, Director of Sector – Digitalisation & Transformation National Council of Social Service (NCSS) Singapore engaged in a fireside conversation on the outlook of cloud adoption.

Mohit got the conversation going by first asking Julian about his thoughts on cloud services from a global AWS perspective. Julian remarked that the pandemic has changed the way people operate. IT (Information Technology) spending is on the rise because people realised that IT infrastructure is vital in the age of the new normal.

Governments need to deploy services faster and accelerate plans for digital transformation and cloud will become the default infrastructure for organisations. More than ever, governments are expected to rapidly improve and set up the infrastructure to support government e-services in weeks.

Focussing the conversation on Singapore, Mohit remarked that GovTech has been on a cloud journey and was keen to know what Bing Wan’s thoughts were on where Singapore is at on that journey currently.

Bing Wan shared that the cloud journey for the Singapore government started as early as 2016 when simpler websites were moved to commercial cloud through the Content Website Platform. GovTech subsequently announced in 2018 that they would migrate up to 70% of eligible government systems to commercial cloud in the next 5 years. They have learnt much from the process and some lessons include the following:

  • Organisations have to stop thinking of cloud as pieces of infrastructure and hardware. Instead, infrastructure pieces should be understood as codes that can be implemented, changed and removed with agility.
  • Organisations should also start to truly tap on cloud-native services and enjoy the efficiency, speed and agility offered by commercial cloud providers. The migration of systems should also shift towards re-factoring or re-architecting of systems towards using a more granular and microservices architecture.
  • There is a need to move away from on-premises infrastructure thinking, as on commercial cloud, many offerings are in-built and offered natively as subscribed services – his advice is to tap on these capabilities and leave it to the experts who do it better rather than attempt to build and develop various infrastructure-constructs on their own.

Cloud adoption is a journey that requires buy-in, Mohit asserts. On that note, he is keen to know how Bruce is getting that message to his organisation. Bruce responds with an anecdote about how hotlines were the first services that were affected when Singapore went into lockdown in March 2020 – people were not able to go into offices to take control of the call centres.

As a result of the crisis, there were deep conversations with the social services about pivoting to cloud – one of the turning points for the sector. He adds that cloud adoption is a strategy that can prepare organisations for potential crises – no one knows when they are overprepared until the crisis happens.

Moving the conversation in the context of the Philippines, Mohit acknowledges that the nation is quite advanced in terms of options. He is keen to know what directional changes Julian sees in the Philippines.

In 2017, Julian explains, the Philippines had already declared a cloud-first policy. Compared to other ASEAN countries, the Philippines was visionary in that aspect and their understanding of the use of cloud services is fairly mature in comparison. When the pandemic struck, they used the cloud service to run mission-critical systems.

He added that putting workloads on cloud is not about internal or external-facing work but about enjoying lower ToC, better agility and scalability.

Mohit opines that even if governments have a cloud-first policy, it does not mean that it gets deployed because agencies need to trust it. On that note, he asked if Bing Wan had any “happy surprises” when GovTech started the journey on cloud.

Bing Wan first cautioned that organisations will not experience the full benefits of cloud if they merely go for a lift-and-shift strategy as they migrate to cloud. There is a need to constantly review and study cloud benefit realisation as part of the migration journey. An extremely proud moment can be seen in the speed and agility observed during the pandemic in which there was a need to scale the Ministry of Education Commercial-Cloud based system for Home-Based Learning. In a short span of about a week, the system was able to be scaled to support 300,000-400,000 concurrent users from the initial sizing of 100,000 concurrent users. All of which would not have been possible if the system is still running on-premise where hardware infrastructure may need to be scaled up.

As cloud is increasingly becoming a necessity, Mohit invited Bruce to share his thoughts on what should people be looking at to accelerate their cloud deployment.

Bruce remarks that cost is a concern in every organisation. When looking at the total cost of ownership, cloud will help in managing that better. Shortage of IT talent is something else that is faced across the board – something that cloud can mitigate.

“You have an entire army backing you so that your glass will be full,” Mohit concurs.

The move towards cloud adoption could be daunting, Mohit is clear and wants to know what AWS can offer to help the Philippine government.

Julian believes that cloud provides all the software for digital infrastructure so that agencies can focus on their business or services. With cloud technology, agencies will be able to deploy systems in a short span of time and enjoy a faster time to market. Apart from that, AWS has a team in the Philippines to support organisations in their shift in their move towards cloud architecture.

Bing Wan’s final thoughts on cloud adoption were that the use of commercial cloud for government digital services will continue to grow.

He emphasised that there is a need to change mindsets to focus less on infrastructure management to the creating ability for better quality digital application that creates more value to citizens. The way of looking at the ecosystem of IT has changed, he believes. Organisations must design architecture patterns differently and start to fully tap on services and capabilities that commercial cloud has to offer.

Interactive Discussion

After the informative presentations, delegates participated in interactive discussions facilitated by polling questions. This session is designed to provide live-audience interaction, promote engagement, hear real-life experiences and impart professional learning and development for the participants. It is an opportunity for delegates to gain insight from subject matter experts, share their stories and take back strategies that can be implemented in their organisations

In the first poll, delegates were asked about the current state of their cloud strategy. More than half (61%) say they have adopted hybrid cloud while slightly over a third (35%) currently have everything on-premise for data protection and security. Only 4% of the delegates are currently on multi-cloud.

Julian remarks that cloud adoption is not an “all-or-nothing decision,” which is why there are hybrid cloud models. When organisations become more mature, they might use a multi-cloud strategy to deploy different cloud services which depend on the use cases.

The main platform is not cloud-based for one delegate, although there is hybrid cloud development. They have a big and fully integrated system, so the journey of cloud adoption is an ongoing project.

Mohit added that in a case where an organisation is facing a highly integrated legacy system, it is a slow and steady journey instead of a quick destination.

Another delegate highlighted cost concerns when it came to cloud adoption while others shared that they want to move to the cloud but are hindered by cloud facilities that are not within the Philippines.

Julian feels that data classification to distinguish the sensitive and highly sensitive data will allow organisations in the Philippines to store their sensitive data through Hong Kong’s data centre. He added that there are services where AWS can put their services within the data centre of organisations so that they can run their public cloud in their data centres.

Regarding cost, cloud offers not only the hardware but a host of other offerings like automation. If delegates are interested, Julian confirmed that AWS will be able to help organisations calculate the true cost of running workload.

On the topic of cost, Bing Wan echoed Julian’s point that cost is important but there is a myth that the key reason to migrate to cloud is to achieve cost savings. It is equally critical to recognise the other benefits that commercial cloud has to offer – which is faster time to market and agility. Organisations need to start realising that the conversation on cost savings would also need to be complemented with other advantages of moving on cloud and one shall not only use cost as the only metric to measure the benefit of cloud migration.

On how to measure the quality of their organisation’s cloud adoption, a majority (43%) measure the quality of cloud adoption through high availability/downtime management. Over a third (35%) evaluate the quality of their cloud adoption through customer/citizen satisfaction. The remaining determine it through resource productivity (13%) and efficiency or cost savings (9%).

For a delegate from a government agency, the aim is to improve the services to the public which is why customer satisfaction is a yardstick. Another delegate echoed the same sentiment and she believes that moving to cloud is not an option anymore. It might not have been an issue pre-pandemic, since citizens could still access services in person. However, without the option of in-person services, cloud services are critical in ensuring that her organisation can continue to service their customers.

The reliability of the organisation during downtime is important for customer satisfaction, shared a participant, while, for an executive from the defence industry, time is of the essence in decision-making.

For Bing Wan, customer satisfaction is one of the key considerations and he believes that migration to cloud will lead to a higher quality of all digital products that government agencies develop for citizens – which will be faster, better, more efficient and more reliable. However, he cautioned against thinking that merely moving to cloud would resolve all the issues. The quality of cloud adoption programme and overall migration strategy will also affect actual benefit-realisation.

To allay participants’ concerns, Mohit confirms that high availability and downtime management is not a problem for AWS.

Concerning the criteria used to choose cloud providers, more than half (56%) select their providers based on security. The others chose performance (20%), compliance with regulatory standards (20%) followed by innovation (4%).

In response to the poll results, Mohit emphasised that all the options need to be secured – the entire breadth of a cloud providers’ offering.

Asked what they saw as the biggest challenge in digitalisation and cloud migration, well over a third (38%)  found people and skillset to be the biggest issue while 19% opted for executive support/top management strategy. Two options got equal responses – data classification/data sovereignty/data residency concern (14%) and budgets (14%). The rest were shared between legacy infrastructure (10%) and security and compliance risks (5%)

On their plans for modernising applications and legacy systems, most (39%) felt that they require application assessment to move to the cloud. Over a third (35%) plan to work with a cloud service provider while the others will look to outsource to a system integrator (17%). About a tenth (9%) have no plans currently.

Regarding the external assistance that delegates believe is the most critical for cloud migration, 40% believe that technical expertise to execute the cloud migration plan is the most critical. About 20% were looking for technical expertise to plan and project-manage while 15% thought leadership influencing to change the government leader mindsets from traditional Data Center Operations to DevOps in the cloud would be vital.

A delegate remarked on the importance of having experts in the organisation to build capacity. To that, Mohit emphasised that organisations across the board are experiencing a people challenge. To that Bruce commented that the desire, ambition and motivation must come from the top. In addition, organisations need to build competency, sell a vision to the people in the organisation.

Mohit stresses that even those at the top need to be educated otherwise cost would always be in the conversation. When making a use case, the language needs to be about efficiency and future growth so that it can resonate with top management. He added that implementation is an ever-evolving process.

For Bing Wan, limited resources and budget will always be a perennial problem. He suggests one of the ways to relook at options to achieve better efficiency is through a platform strategy. In Singapore, GovTech spearheaded a central platform (Singapore Government Tech Stack) containing a suite of shared software components and infrastructure that enables a higher level of efficiency and helps developers focus on building digital applications.

Conclusion

Julian brought the session to a close, acknowledging that digital transformation and cloud adoption is an important and ongoing journey. He does realise, however, that there are many concerns that must be planned for and addressed. AWS has the experience of assisting organisations on this journey to work out solutions for their concerns.

The importance of skillsets and having people who are about to savvy about cloud technology is another key consideration. On that note, he shares that AWS can offer training for employees for organisations who want to transform the competencies of their people.

Finally, he feels that cloud adoption can come in small steps. Through increments, organisations will be able to experience and learn all about cloud adoption. Mohit adds that it is important to select a few people to upskill to bring the knowledge back to the organisation.

In closing, Julian expressed his gratitude to everyone for their participation and highly energetic discussion. He invited delegates to reach out to him and his team to explore how they can work together on their cloud journey.

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