Previously in the Great Deverticalisation series we have told the story of “The Street”, which exists in a parallel but somehow strangely familiar world.
Our story explained how the shopkeepers in the Street began to make their services much better for their users, as well as less expensive to run. By using common platforms built on open standards they were able to have their cake and eat it too: cheap, locally-tailored services, easy to design and maintain, with a marketplace of cost-effective suppliers vying with one another to think of ever cleverer, more innovative ideas to make their services even better.
The narrative analogy between the Street and our real-world public and private sectors was intended to help better communicate the challenges and opportunities that face our public services.
The central message is that politicians and government have the opportunity, through the power of open platforms, to both take the lead in creating modern public services for the future and to play an instrumental role in improving the UK’s position in a competitive global economy.
This is an opportunity the UK cannot afford to waste.
The gap between our public services as they currently exist, and how they could be better designed and operated in future, is a subject of major importance to us all. There are already encouraging green shoots – within some local authorities, with the work of the Open Data Institute, and in the award-winning Government Digital Service (GDS).
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Why do we persist in running vertically integrated organisations when standardising many of these processes would free us up to do things so much better, and more cheaply? Mark Thompson with Jerry Fishenden, based on work being undertaken with Cambridge University’s Open Platforms and Innovation Group, addressed this question in the previous four of their series of articles:
The challenges ahead remain significant, however: the majority of our public services remain mired within clunky, industrial-era, corporatist business models that deliver a limited range of increasingly expensive outcomes, often badly. All too frequently services fail to meet the needs and expectations of citizens, service providers and businesses alike.
Challenging the old ways
The real significance of the Street, as with the government’s “digital by default” agenda, is not about technology, but about responding effectively to much more significant issues. Globalisation, digitisation and commoditisation are challenging traditional, corporatist ways of designing and organising services. Whether you are an HSBC or an HMRC, old, expensive and unresponsive business models are being challenged on all sides.
Rising to this challenge requires clear and sustained political and administrative leadership.
With some notable exceptions, policymakers and those who operate our public services remain largely uninformed about, and thus uninterested in, how platforms can revolutionise the “business model” of government in the way that has been described in this series of articles. Yet many of the most envied, successful and most discussed businesses in the world are founded on open platforms - their accessibility encourages smaller businesses to innovate around them, dreaming up new, popular services that no-one had thought of before.
Why should public services be any different, and why should we expect any less from them?
Government as a platform
The thinking exemplified in the Street has already been applied to some extent to government itself, for which the phrase “government as a platform” (GaaP), minted by Tim O' Reilly in 2009, has become shorthand.
However, although GaaP was broadly debated in the US, the term has received less attention here in the UK. Worse, it is often mistakenly dismissed as a narrow technology-specific initiative. Yet GaaP is far more than a geek’s trendy acronym - it invites serious engagement between the world of government and the emerging world of platforms.
For example, it would be a mistake to think that “digital by default” is a narrow agenda focused on technical platforms. Yes, technical platforms are part of the answer, but if anything these are the easy part; the more complex part involves designing open, modular ways of doing things, and then persuading people across government to adopt them. The real platform comprises these two halves - open standards, and public demand. When these come together, citizens will do the rest.
Realising the true value of the platform model for our public services requires widespread public awareness and engagement - from citizens and businesses to the mainstream political classes and their advisers.
Unlike much of the historically over-hyped claims about “transformational government enabled by technology” – which on closer inspection amounted to little more than inefficient forms of leaning, centralising and outsourcing – a platform model is genuinely ambitious and disruptive. It involves the re-design of our public services - their re-engineering from inception to delivery. It amounts to nothing less than the “de-corporatisation” of the state and its major suppliers, exploiting recent seismic shifts in technology-enabled global capitalism to re-empower UK citizens and entrepreneurs in place of inefficient oligopolies.
In the UK the Cabinet Office and GDS are making headway in embracing platform-based technologies for government. They have established an essential milestone, calling time on government’s Stockholm syndrome with its major technology and outsourced service suppliers. However, there remains significantly more work to do before our public services approach anything like the platform-based efficiencies and innovation discussed in the Street.
Enshrining open standards, consolidating transactions and introducing service hubs are all vital steps towards the achievement of greater interoperability – and have been won often in the teeth of ferocious, self-interested opposition. But they remain short-term tactics towards delivery of a much bigger and more strategic outcome - a re-orientation of siloed public organisations around platforms, delivering better public services focused on the citizen not the service provider.
As political parties continue to research, develop and refine their policies for the future of our country, urgent work is needed in several areas: on understanding what citizens and businesses need from 21st century public services; on the definition of what a platform-based business model for UK public services actually looks like in order to meet those needs; vigorous and open debate about its limitations and boundaries; and the development of – we hope – a degree of cross-party consensus together with a collective mandate for rapid and effective implementation.
Without policy-level, informed involvement and clarity of leadership, this strategic vision and its potential - the drive for substantive, cost-effective improvements in our public services - will become constrained and dissipated. Such an outcome would merely repeat the mistakes and failures of earlier e-government efforts. Realising the true value of the platform model for our public services requires widespread public awareness and engagement - from citizens and businesses to the mainstream political classes and their advisers.
Constructing this bridge between a full understanding of GaaP and public policy is as essential to the UK in the 21st century as was the bridge between engineering and public policy in the 19th century, in the age of Brunel and Bazelgette.
If there is a single message that we hope readers will take from The Street, it is that there is an urgent need to move beyond thinking about platforms in narrow technology terms, and to radically improve our public services by starting to re-engineer the business model of government.
Continue the open discussion and debate on the true potential of GaaP in helping improve our public services for the 21st century at www.UKGaaP.org.
Jerry Fishenden is the former specialist adviser to Parliament for its inquiry into public sector IT and technology director at consultancy VoeTek.
Alan Brown is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Surrey Business School and a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Rational software