Explaining Government as a Platform
Government as a Platform represents a new paradigm, not an incremental improvement on today’s system of government. Because of this, explaining platform approaches to senior stakeholders and politicians is both critical and potentially challenging. It’s critical because political sponsorship is important for such a radical change. It’s hard because it may not map neatly onto today’s business-cases and political cycles.
1. Find the metaphor that works for you
There is no single ‘killer metaphor’ for Government as a Platform, and different approaches seem to have worked in different situations.
In his article that coined the phrase Government as a Platform, Tim O’Reilly cites the philosophy of the Unix operating system as one of several inspirations for how government could work. There have been various attempts at codifying the Unix philosophy,1 but this one from 1994 sums it up nicely:
Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.2
Rebooting India, the book that details the development of Aadhaar and other platforms, contains a quote from the former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee comparing technology platforms with those of a railway system:
“See, it is just like a railway platform. Different trains pull up at a railway platform, each with a different destination, and people get on and off depending on where they are headed. In the same way, the technology platform is a central location where various state government, institutions and citizens can gather. All government services are offered on the same platform, and citizens can enrol for all eligible services in one place.”3
The UK Government Digital Service tried various metaphors to explain a platform approach to government (many of which are listed below), before arriving at the concept of building blocks: 4
“We think there’s a simpler, easier way. The same public services, but designed and built differently. It’s an idea called “government as a platform”. It breaks things down into smaller parts, like building blocks. Each block does one job. It’s easy to connect blocks together, and scale them up when demand increases. If some part of the service breaks, we can fix it or upgrade it easily. Platforms can be opened up, too, allowing third-party services to use government data.”5
Below are a few different approaches, metaphors and descriptions that may be useful when explaining the idea of platform government.
By creating reusable building blocks we can make it quicker and cheaper to deliver public-facing services. As a consequence of that, public services will improve, and the quality of people’s experience of the state will be transformed.
Duplication and cost
Government is doing X thing multiple times. That’s wasting money and is confusing for citizens.
Platforms represent shared digital infrastructure for our country. A modern government needs to approach digital infrastructure in the same way it does physical infrastructure, such as roads, or legal infrastructure, like company law.
A modern technology stack
Modern technology companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook take a platform approach. Digital age governments are beginning to emulate them.
The burning platform
We already have a technology platform of sorts today. The question we need to ask is: is it up to the job? Do we have the capability in place to be able to respond to threats and to continuously improve it?
It’s not about fixing technology, it’s about fixing a policy area
Platforms are not about fixing our technology. They are a way of enabling us to fix a broken policy area (e.g. welfare, transportation).
The first governments to adopt this approach will have an advantage over other countries.
End-to-end service design
Radically new types of service could become possible (or at least much simpler) under the Government as a Platform model. Services can more easily be designed around the needs of citizens rather than the organizational structure of government.
Shared foundations mean that services can be provided by any layer of government, as well as by commercial or third sector organizations. They can overlap and complement each other.
Institutional reform for the digital age
If you designed government today, you wouldn’t design it around siloed government departments.
Platforms can be designed to be inherently more transparent than today’s systems.
Because platforms are modular, it will prevent us being locked-in to a single set of technology.
2. Show don’t tell
Ultimately though, there’s no substitute for showing a working demo.
“Unix philosophy”, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy ↩
Peter H. Salus, “A Quarter-Century of Unix”, 1994 ↩
Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah, Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations, Penguin Books, 2016, page xxviii ↩
Interview, Matthew Sheret, former Writer and Strategist Government Digital Service, 21st September 2018 ↩
Government Digital Service, “Government as a Platform”, YouTube, 9th December 2014, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzPU6Pdw05s ↩