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Government as a platform, or a platform for government? Which are we getting?

Government as a platform is the latest buzzword in Whitehall - but is that really what they are going to deliver?

In the world of government technology, platforms are increasingly the only business in town. With the election safely out of the way, consultation is now happening at the highest levels about what, exactly, “government as a platform” (GaaP) actually means, and where the opportunities lie to take advantage of what it may have to offer.

Predictably, government’s favourite professional thinkers – long associated with recommending shared services, lean and outsourcing models to the Treasury, ironically the very top-down constructs that GaaP models replace – have been enlisted to build a Treasury business case for GaaP

As ever in the world of technology consulting, the “answer” the advisers come up with is likely to be substantively a “thing” – a piece, or pieces, of technology – that government can purchase or build, own and, most importantly, control.

Features of GaaP that the consultancy-Treasury-Cabinet Office confection is not likely to highlight include:

Tellingly, however, these are all direct quotations from Tim O’Reilly, the person who coined the term GaaP in 2010, and whose ideas confer legitimacy on the entire GaaP project (see, for example, Government Digital Service (GDS) chief Mike Bracken’s latest blog, the most recent publicly available document about where government is on GaaP).

Gulf in vision

There may be a dangerous gulf between the 2010 O’Reilly vision, and what actually gets signed off by Treasury in 2015 – resulting, in part, from bureaucratic Chinese whispers, and in part from the continuingly low level of engagement from politicians and senior public servants with the entire topic. 

O’Reilly’s vision for GaaP chimes closely with what all digital business models share in common – they make the need for bureaucratic silos (read government departments) increasingly unnecessary, enabling citizens to care, share and sell goods and services to one another much more directly, innovatively and cheaply – something that, for better or worse, is very much the political zeitgeist at the moment.

The defining motif underpinning O’Reilly’s vision of GaaP, and repeated analysis of digital business models, is Eric Raymond’s Cathedral and Bazaar paper, originally shared at the 1997 Linux congress. 

In it, Raymond tries to understand how it was that the open-source Linux world “not only didn't fly apart in confusion, but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders”. He concludes that given a set of openly available, standard tools, community organisations – or bazaars – will out-think, out-innovate and out-pace traditionally organised, top-down organisations. 

In other words, both Raymond and O’Reilly’s visions share a fundamental commitment to a radically different mode of organising, in which the “clever” part is the participative business model, rather than merely improved access to technology.

The government's choice is between a blueprint for GaaP that supports participation versus one that supports mere access to technology
Mark Thompson

The distinction here – and government’s choice – between a blueprint for GaaP that supports participation versus one that supports mere access, is critical. The former is about democratic re-invigoration, and the latter is about – well, just technology. Participation is much more disruptive to existing modes of organising within government.

As an example, Labour’s 2014 Digital Government Review had the aim of trying, as far as possible, to support national consideration of these issues. At one point, Chi Onwurah MP, who ably led the review, mentioned that she was comfortable with a notion that she coined as “platform for government” – let’s call this PfG – but less happy with “government as a platform”.

Her distinction between GaaP and PfG is useful in helping to think through the dimensions, and thus the significant implications, of what is at stake. The table below summarises some of the most important issues. 

These implications underline how important it is that the senior public servants who will sign off the GaaP business case accord serious consideration to the subtleties of what they are signing. Will they be rubber-stamping GaaP? Or will they be rubber-stamping PfG? Or perhaps worse, something that succeeds at neither?

GaaP or PfG?

Government as a platform Platform for government
‘Bazaar’ mode of organising (disruptive) ‘Cathedral’ mode of organising (traditional)
Open participation Open access
Active co-creation of services Passive consumption of services
Platform’ is a business model ‘Platform’ is a piece(s) of technology
‘Agile’ is about citizens organising differently ‘Agile’ is about government tech responding to ‘user needs’
Government stewards and enables civic marketplace Government provides better access to its ‘vending machine’ of services

Platform-ecosystem economics

(Government consolidates around standard business rules; market innovates continually around this demand)

Traditional economics

(Government pays people to build, and run, its technology)

Focus on service outcomes; open standards Focus on technology inputs; open source
Minimal technology and commercial legacy Substantial technology and commercial legacy

This article is too short a vehicle to unpack each of the important features in the above table – although we have done so more fully in the recent book Digitizing Government. If you had to pick one distinction to focus the minds of Treasury and civil service management, though, it would be between open standards and open source. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the two concepts even shared a title together in the report I wrote for George Osborne back in 2009.

Where a progressive convergence on open standards (standard business rules, open architecture) constitutes the DNA for digitally enabled GaaP, a primary focus on open source (bespoke technology, closed architecture) constitutes the DNA for PfG. 

Leaving aside the question of whether the state-cathedral should ever be trying to out-think the bazaar by doing systems development and integration in an accelerating, web-based global economy, let’s end with an illustration of why the UK would come to regret opting for PfG, saddling its citizens with the features on the right of the table above.

Estonia's experience

In May, working in partnership with several other European university departments, including Cambridge Judge Business School, the software engineering department at Estonia’s University of Tallinn submitted an EU Horizon 2020 bid to prove the technical and commercial viability of an open, bazaar model for GaaP. 

During discussions with Estonia’s own government – widely regarded as a poster-child for GaaP by other governments, including that of the UK – it became clear that, while supportive, they were able to play only a limited role in our proposed research project because the Estonian e-government initiative is a largely bespoke, legacy government technology platform that remains closed off from the rapidly evolving global, web-enabled software market.

While it remains a pioneering and impressive piece of software engineering from 1995 when it was originally conceived, the irony is that in 2015 it constitutes a case study for digital isolation – it is an example of what not to emulate in the UK. Put another way, would the Estonians themselves do the same thing again in 2015, given a clean slate and the opportunity for new thinking that this affords?

Meanwhile, the danger is that by offering improved access, and even focusing on digital inclusion per se, the agile mantra within any platform-for-government blueprint becomes a way for government to defuse the real disruption offered by GaaP. If so, the chance for more genuine, digitally enabled citizen participation, and disintermediation of government, is reduced to a systems development orthodoxy.

In this way, the openness promised by digital and GaaP never makes it beyond the level of technology to anything more democratically substantive – and the possibility for happier, really cost-effective public service is lost for another generation. Thus would the genuine re-imagining of Raymond and O’Reilly – and the real digital opportunity for the UK – be rendered inert, bounded and risk-averse. Much like, say, a Treasury business case for a traditionally large government technology programme.


Mark ThompsonMark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, a key architect of the government’s open IT strategy and strategy director at Methods Group. He is co-author of the book Digitizing Government.

This was last published in June 2015

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Over the years I have concluded that the author nearly gets it right but sadly has like many in "Gov IT" fail to recognise the new software capabilities that now support people at work see this commentary!
http://www.dmossesq.com/2015/05/promising-clusters-1-million-useless.html?showComment=1432466412252


However his observation is right "….the openness promised by digital and GaaP never makes it beyond the level of technology to anything more democratically substantive – and the possibility for happier, really cost-effective public service is lost for another generation." Digitisation is not about technology it is about supporting people (civil servants and public) to efficiently achieving the desired outcome. It is all about people something GDS and other IT driven people have never really recognised and "user needs" is not enough to truly understand. Next generation software now addresses this in totality recognising real need for both customisation and constant change at the frontline where people work. But Government have virtually no research capability to understand and so ”technology” complexity still rules servicing many vested interest internal and external meanwhile public pay the price…..

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