House Oversight chair questions federal cloud strategy

As the Obama administration pushes ahead with plans to adopt cloud computing, Congress is pushing back with questions.

Google is a leading proponent of cloud computing, where  most applications and data are on remote servers and accessed from a PC  via the Internet.

Last week, Rep. Edolphus Towns, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, responded to the release of a draft of federal cloud strategy earlier this month with a barrage of questions. In a letter to the General Services Agency which is overseeing the Federal Cloud Computing Initiative, Towns and Rep. Diane Watson, chair of the procurement subcommittee, said:

“…there are no clear policies and procedures in place for cloud computing; that standards have not yet been developed for security, interoperability, or data portability; and that a finalized plan for the government-wide implementation of cloud computing is not readily available.”

The gap between Town’s simple questions and the administration’s ambitious strategy indicates  suggests a failure to communicate.

The Federal Cloud Computing Initiative presents a comprehensive scheme for conceptualizing cloud computing services and adopting them across the government. It calls for outreach and a communications plan. Unfortunately, the document lacks basic data about which agencies have adopted cloud computing and what they have gained or lost. Right now, the wizards of Obama’s  IT working groups are talking in a language (e.g. “the hybrid cloud”)  that the average bureaucrat, citizen and congressman can barely understand.

Amidst the cloud computing boom, cautionary voices are being heard. Industry bloggers are calling attention to Five Big Weaknesses in cloud computing.  Ars Technica warns of the possibility, if not probability, of a catastrophic failure akin the Gulf oil well blowout in which massive amounts of data leaks uncontrollably and panicked consumers return to storing their data on servers in a closet down the hall.

That doesn’t mean the government’s move to the cloud won’t or shouldn’t take place. But the administration needs to do a better job of explaining what this change means for government workers and the public.

Rep. Towns asked GSA information officer Casey Coleman for answers by this Friday so we’ll soon find out if the Obama administration can bring the cloud discussion down to earth.

Published by Margot Williams

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

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