Sprint 15 confirms plans for government as platform

A cross-government approach to public service provision would drive platform-based government, heard this year’s digital overview Sprint 15

A cross-government approach to providing public services is the best way to drive a platform-based government, according to speakers at this year’s government digital overview event, Sprint 15.

The debate saw industry experts explain how creating a digital platform to act as a base for providing public services needs be done by reconfiguring public service “away from bureaucracy” towards user needs.

The problem is the difficulty found in avoiding “digital politics”, as many government services still adhere to a system focused on creating benefit for the government rather than providing an easy service for the user.

Self-service platforms

Earlier this year, the Government Digital Service (GDS) stated in its annual report that, over the next six months, the team will work closely with departments and agencies to identity the priority platforms to develop in an open format and share with other departments – a signal it would help contribute towards a government-as-a-platform structure.

“A platform isn’t a piece of technology that we build at GDS, or anyone else in government has built, it’s a standard,” said Mark Thompson, senior lecturer at Cambridge Judge Business School. “Platform for me is all about common capability.”

Thompson used Netflix as an example of a business model that uses platforms to deliver services through a “self-service bureaucracy”.

But by creating this common way of providing user-focused services, an ecosystem will start to develop, pushing forward supply and demand.

“For every platform correctly defined there’s a vibrant ecosystem,” Thompson said. “Platforms without an ecosystem is just a name.”

Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media and the person widely credited with coining the name "government as a platform", pointed to Apple as another example of the proposed model for platform-based public services, due to its initial closed approach developing into an ecosystem once it opened its app store to the development of external applications.

O’Reilly said that, if the development of digital government were to fall behind Moore's law – the concept of computing capability doubling approximately every two years – the gap will grow exponentially.

This should put an end to closed, siloed applications. “Instead the government should provide fundamental applications and services upon which we the people can build additional applications,” O’Reilly said.

How can government achieve this?

GDS has already begun the process of making government as a platform a reality by developing easy-to-use applications that perform a set task, O’Reilly pointed out.

He said the next step is to “create a set of modular fundamental services that can be used as building blocks” similar to how Amazon operates.

Executive director of digital for the UK government, Mike Bracken, described the four elements needed to adopt a system – creating platforms, appointing a data officer to monitor the use of data, changing the ways of working to be more agile, and focusing on operational principles that put user needs first.

But to achieve this will require “resetting government at every level” to focus on the needs of the user, rather than the convenience of the government, he said.  

Bracken said four platforms had already been created, using examples such as its prison-booking service and identification service Gov.uk Verify as examples of systems that have already been created and could be used as base platforms other departments could build on.

Approximately 30 more are needed, such as payment platforms, status tracking, a contact information updating platform and a document and applications status platform, before all the services needed are available.

Plans to do this involve breaking down siloed and duplicated services and designing public services broken down into blocks that do one job. These services can be connected and scaled making them easier to upgrade and fix, and then opened up to allow third-party services access to data.

“It’s not about websites, they’re just a physical indicator,” said Bracken. “We have to marry our approach to technology to our approach to service delivery.”

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