Cloud-based services have simplified how Franklin Township, N.J. residents register for preschoolers’ basketball classes, Zumba or hundreds of other recreation department courses. “Processing rec department registrations in the cloud makes it convenient for residents,” says Justin Heyman, director of information technology for the township. (population, 62,300).

Heyman says that the cloud also has simplified recreation department staffers’ ability to process registrations without setting up a virtual private network (VPN).

In addition, the township relies on cloud-based tools to manage meeting agendas and other public-facing functions. “Our agendas are public record, with very few exceptions, so having those meeting agendas out in the cloud puts us one step closer to the public in our transparency efforts. So when we look at putting more IT functions in the cloud, we look at whether the shift will increase transparency and whether the township function has a fit for a cloud app.”

Heyman says Franklin Township is using the cloud for other tasks. “Our community’s website is hosted on the cloud with Vision Internet. Our code book is cloud-hosted as well. Also, our citizen and staff notification platforms are managed in the cloud.”

Cloud security is important for the township. When contracting for cloud technologies, Heyman says governments “should ensure that things such as data ownership, liability in a breach, notification of a breach and exit clauses are all covered in the agreement.” They also should also ask that vendors provide proof of security testing and assurances that they comply with necessary standards. “If it’s a public-facing app, most of that data is public anyway, so if there were a breach, it’s not as much of a concern being in the cloud.”

Today, governments are more comfortable with cloud security issues than in the recent past, says Shawn P. McCarthy, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Government Insights. The firm offers research and consulting services to governments and suppliers.

Several years ago, he says “there was a lot of hesitancy about loss of control, security, etc., and most of those questions have been answered,” McCarthy says. He says that today, governments are willing to move to the cloud when it makes sense financially. “You even see the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence agencies hosting some activities in the cloud now, when they can have really secure environments guaranteed.”

McCarthy says governments are relying on the cloud in more areas. For example local governments are also using the cloud to host content management systems that rely on SharePoint, since it is cloud based.

As for other uses, McCarthy says, “obviously storage is a big one, because storage has gotten so cheap online, and along with it, the ability to set up shared folders, etc. So that’s next for a lot of governments.”

Any task that takes a lot of processing power, says McCarthy, is destined to wind up in the cloud. He says that industry is moving faster to the cloud than government because of public sector rules that specify where data can reside unless the safety of it is guaranteed. Human resource management activity, adds McCarthy, is another area that will be hosted in the cloud in the near future.

One of the predictions in IDC’s FutureScape is that “By 2018, cross-governmental initiatives will be streamlined and optimized by 25 percent growth of collaborative sourcing for government clouds.”

Heyman’s Franklin Township is already collaborating with a nearby local government in a cloud-based project. “We have a small agreement with Princeton N.J. It’s a reciprocal agreement; we house each other’s backup sites. It’s a private-cloud-type app between the two communities. From my perspective, I see more of that happening, where it’s more of a government-to-government cloud. Areas such as business continuity and disaster recovery also scream that kind of cloud-based application,” Heyman says.

McCarthy says IDC sees more local government portal sites hosted in the cloud. These portals, he says, cover everything from registering your dog, to getting your parking space sticker, paying your taxes, arranging for the inspection of a local building under construction or inspecting a restaurant for sanitation violations. He says individual government entities or sub-agencies often maintained their own databases that managed these public regulatory activities. “We’ve seen a big interest among governments in having a portal site for these government functions that can be hosted by a third party,” McCarthy says.

Heyman advises local governments to listen to new ideas when they consider moving municipal functions to the cloud. “When the cloud first got hot, we were all very wary of someone taking all of our control away or our ability to do what we do. From my perspective, I evaluate the cloud just like I evaluate any other technology. First, I look at the app, if it’s an app-specific evaluation, and then I evaluate based on whether it is an on- or off-premise situation. I say take the cloud into your normal business process and keep an open mind.”

Local governments should determine if the cloud can play a role in new IT projects, McCarthy says. “Anything new that your agency is looking to develop, the cloud should probably be your first stop or at least the first part of the discussion.” He says migration of existing systems, data fields or apps can be expensive because of the way they are set up. “But if you are building something brand new from scratch for some new initiative, looking to the cloud makes sense at that point,” McCarthy says.

Michael Keating (Michael.keating@penton.com) is senior editor of Government Product News, American City & County’s sister brand.