Government must be a platform entrepreneur to deliver 'digital 2.0'

The government needs to start with a clear policy and architecture for digital 2.0

I recently came across the National Audit Office (NAO) ICT in Government: Landscape Review, released back in 2011. 

It’s not a bad document, written in the heat of the post-election realignment in Conservative policy away from vertically integrated corporate systems, supplied by traditional systems integrators (SIs), towards a more open, level playing field in which government was supposed to consume “utility” technology services, based on adoption of common open standards. 

The document now reads a little dated, as in one remark that “a growing number of public services are now available online” it sounds almost surprised. But this is a fast-moving area, so there’s no shame in that. Shortly after the NAO’s document in 2011, the government rebranded this initial focus on open standards into a focus on “digital”

Looking back at the document, I found myself wondering: would an updated landscape review of digital government since 2011 conclude that government policy had been achieved?

Let’s take a quick look at the simple, but powerful, logic that underlay the policy. Take the iPhone – because so many of us use iPhones with their standard iOS operating system, a ferocious market of innovation and investment has sprung up around this “vanilla” platform.

There are currently 1.3 million apps in the Apple app store. A great many are free; some are “freemium”, where you try before you buy; and some cost money. You decide which you need, and build a portfolio of them to suit your personal lifestyle – but all work immediately on iOS. 

Apple doesn’t develop many apps itself or pay suppliers to develop apps – what an old-fashioned idea – partly because the centre isn’t hubristic enough to try to guess all of the things that users might want, and partly because it would quickly run out of money.

To participate in this wonderful world, however, you first need to join the iOS club – to change your technology and your previous comfortable habits and be willing to learn to do things differently.

Strategy and architecture

Immediately visible here is a strong link between strategy and architecture. If you want to trigger this outpouring of innovation and investment you first need to decide on your common standards. You need to lock them down because people won’t invest in apps on your platform if you keep tinkering with it. Then you kick-start the platform to establish a user base; and when, attracted by your growing user base, people want to start building apps, you provide a clearing house – in Apple’s case, the app store – where these can be checked and tested before releasing to the public. 

So if your strategy is to encourage a vibrant ecosystem, you first need to architect and establish a platform. No platform? No ecosystem. Simple as that. 

iOS is a genuine digital business model, since a commonly adopted platform enables people to build and sell very personal services to other people over the platform, with almost no need for bureaucratic intervention at all. The money is spent on maintaining a platform that is attractive to iPhone users and developers alike, and on building really nice services, and not on bureaucrats.

So, returning to our landscape review, has digital in the UK shown signs of the tight strategy and architectural vision required to transform the business model of our public services so that our money goes on really nice services and not on bureaucracy? 

Well, I’m not saying there are no signs at all, but if they exist, they’re not very visible. 

For many, if not most, people working in this space, digital remains primarily about getting people online, as in the old 2011 NAO document, rather than about rethinking the business model of government itself to enable a massive diversion of money to frontline services. 

We have a fantastic website in – think Apple website, and a very welcome G-Cloud – think app store. But we don’t have an iOS to run our stuff on. Worse, because there’s no common demand – an equivalent community to iPhone users – G-Cloud isn’t a buzzy ecosystem of investors, but a transactional website.

Digital 2.0

This is not to say that these “digital 1.0” developments aren’t a great achievement in themselves – just look at what we had before – more to try to suggest how we should think about “digital 2.0”.

In measuring the success of digital in the UK, therefore, we need to be very rigorous about what we’re measuring. For example, is success to be measured in the adoption of agile techniques? Take-up of open source? The number of people online? These might be three of the most commonly found metrics of digital for many people.

We now see government executives resisting what is becoming increasingly obvious – the business model itself is obsolete, and no amount of agile, open source, or even online engagement will alter this

Mark Thompson, Cambridge Judge Business School

From a business model perspective though, these measures all miss the point completely. It would be like evaluating the success of traditional incumbents in the record industry of the late 1990s in terms of the numbers of people buying CDs from them online – most of us would laugh at such naïveté. 

Just as record company executives initially resisted customers’ demands for a different model, we now see government executives resisting what is becoming increasingly obvious – the business model itself is obsolete, and no amount of agile, open source, or even online engagement per se will alter this.

In a revealing comment in 1994, the Oxford government historian Christopher Hood wrote that we had entered an era of “no-one-in-charge public management” – and in many ways, he was right. It is now increasingly difficult for government to direct behaviours centrally in our part-privatised, globalised state. 

However, this should not be an excuse for not having a strategy. Recent thinking on platform strategy, and even on platforms for the design of platforms (take a look!) provides the basis for important foundational thinking about how the state can and should become a “platform entrepreneur”, wedding policy and architecture tightly together.

Here is one possibly controversial but powerful example. In the UK, we have an enormous headache trying to work out how to enable collaboration across health, social care (why do PSN and N3 not work together, for example?), emergency services, local government, housing and the third sector. We have massive bureaucratic redundancy, with hundreds of organisations doing the same thing. 

We also realise that supporting all of this redundancy is financially unsustainable, and plays into the hands of huge outsourcing companies that run broken businesses to save the government from the embarrassment that it is no longer able to run them itself. 

A platform entrepreneur

We don’t so much need a local government digital service or even a website – neither of these can fix broken government. Quite simply, we need the state to behave as a platform entrepreneur, and build an iOS for local services. Build it, control it, lock it tightly down, and make it attractive right across the local services landscape (inter)nationally.

“But we have localism,” I hear you cry. True, we are living in the era of "no one in charge", and you can’t make people do things they may be reluctant to do. So how about this – government provides the vanilla platform, together with some generic core apps to kick-start the process, free of charge to all public bodies. 

We need the state to behave as a platform entrepreneur, and build an iOS for local services

Mark Thompson, Cambridge Judge Business School

Although they are, of course, free to ignore the common platform – think 1990s record company executives looking at the internet – should they continue stubbornly to do so, central government should start to deduct the cost of this platform from their block grant. 

A simple website showing take-up by local services of the free platform, making visible all of the activity and innovation everywhere around the UK on the platform, and exposing the cost to each local resident of their own authority’s continuing non-participation, should be incentive enough.

So what should the metrics be for successful digital public services? Here are some suggested outcomes: a pervasive withering of bureaucracy; a massive shift of resource to the face-to-face public services that really matter, such as educating, caring, nursing, cleaning, regulating or policing; enabling an end to cuts in all of these areas; unprecedented localism, as citizens, government and third sector trial and consume their own interoperable services that dissolve their traditional organisational differences; an explosion of experimentation and investment as public and private organisations and individuals, large and small, trial services that no one’s even thought of yet; and a well-managed, gradual transition in skills and education within our existing skills base to support these. 

A future NAO landscape review would do well to measure these things. However, our government first needs to start with a clear policy and architecture for digital 2.0 – the business model.

Mark Thompson (pictured) 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, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on 1 December.

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