What the public sector can (and can’t) learn from private sector IT

Image of a woman in a library with white wavy shelves, looking at the books on offer.

Public sector IT professionals are liable to occasionally react skeptically when people try to apply what works for the private sector to their area of expertise – and well they might. The two sectors, in many ways, simply speak different languages. To make hasty assumptions about the translatability of ideas could be to court disaster.

As an example here, enterprises are often compelled to react to market changes in near real-time, modifying plans on the fly as the economic context and customer needs shift. Meanwhile, in the public sector, organizations need greater certainty over a longer timeframe – not just in line with any political and administrative cycles, but because the services its technology underpins tend to be more indispensable to a wider range of citizens and stakeholders.

In a private enterprise, that set of stakeholders evolves over time, and sometimes quite rapidly, as new products and services are explored. Comparatively, the public sector is mandated, by definition, to serve the needs of every citizen, the ‘customers’, for any given service, which all other variables must work around. While accountability for failure or success in private sector IT may be clearly delineated by an organizational charter, defining how shareholders and boards of directors steer the ship, public sector IT carries a more evidently ethical responsibility to uphold public trust and economic stability on the broadest scale.

Unpicking the public sector difference

Zooming in on that big picture, however, perhaps the clearest differentiator lies in cultural assumptions about what kinds of technology – and so what technological challenges – are being dealt with in these sectors. In short, there is an all too familiar story about how the public sector has failed to wean itself from mainframe-centric processes that have been ticking over for decades, while the private sector has jetted off into the cloud-filled skies of agility and efficiency. What (the thinking seems to go) can professionals who dwell amongst the hyperscalers bring to the table for public sector projects?

Data revealed in Kyndryl’s ‘2023 State of Mainframe Modernization Survey Report’ might call that particular point of difference into doubt. Interviewing 500 business leaders in major organizations globally, it sought to uncover a true picture of how mission-critical IT environments are operating and being transformed today. What it found may be more familiar to public sector IT professionals than they would expect.

Fewer than one percent of all respondents, for instance, reported that they are moving all of their workloads entirely off the mainframe: among the remainder, a range of strategies was found, with varying degrees of modernizing operations on the mainframe and integrating cloud services with the mainframe, coexisting alongside efforts to eliminate mainframe operations from certain areas.

That marries with the fact that 90 percent of organizations see the mainframe as essential to business operations, with advantages around security, reliability and performance outweighing the benefits of cloud alternatives. Cybersecurity, in fact, was the most-valued quality of mainframes in the survey, being cited by 68 percent of respondents.

In addition to security and resiliency, moving to a mainframe cloud allows enterprises to ditch legacy DCs and tap into deeper skill pools without the cost and effort of rewriting or modernizing applications immediately. In this way, mainframe clouds can be beneficial, for example, as an efficient and secure test environment, using cloud-native services, to build new apps that can then be deployed to hyperscalers.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kyndryl’s sample of business leaders did not seem to identify strategies that maintain mainframe operations as a particular cost center versus the alternatives: on average, they anticipated seeing a $23.3m saving from modernization initiatives, versus a $26.6m saving from integration programs or a $25.6m saving from moving off the mainframe.

The lesson is not just that enterprises, generally speaking, have moved beyond a simplistic ‘stick or twist’ mindset in which cloud and mainframe operations are seen as binary alternatives. It’s that enterprise strategies are attaining real maturity, in which pitfalls and benefits alike are being clearly identified and a solidified sense of what good hybrid infrastructure looks like is emerging.

The enterprise IT test lab

A huge amount of technology work in the UK public sector revolves around the balancing act of developing new cloud-based services for citizens while upholding the value of long-standing mainframe applications. The public sector, as much as the private one, must reckon with an accelerating pace of technological, social and economic change and needs to ensure that it can take advantage of the valuable data it has at hand. Cost efficiency, in the name of delivering public value for money, is of course always at play in any strategic IT decision.

Indeed, looking back at the bigger-picture differences between these two areas of expertise, we can see real signs of how private industry is increasingly defining itself in terms of responsibility to society and the planet as well as revenue, while the public sector is pressured to improve how it reacts to changing contexts.

This is not to suggest that making a distinction between the needs of public and private sector IT is incorrect. There are fundamental differences in both the technological heritage and the future needs of the two sectors and recognizing that in a nuanced way is vital for success in public sector digitalization.

I do, however, think it suggests that there is an under-appreciated resource in the private sector in terms of how it can guide the public sector towards technological success. We might look to enterprises, with their greater appetite for innovation and tolerance for failure, almost as a laboratory for trialing the kinds of shift that national IT infrastructure needs to pull off.

With the right expertise to translate those lessons sensitively and responsibly, we might find that those languages are mutually intelligible after all.