Local Government as a Platform – beyond “delivering services digitally”

The “Government as a Platform” concept – what it is and how we create it – has been kicking around the echo chambers of Twitter for the past year or so. Every now and again I read a post and mutter to myself about how people still aren’t getting it right. Recently it’s been good to see that more people are getting more of it right, but there’s still a missing dimension to the debate, so I’ve decided I’d better stop muttering and start articulating loud and clear what I think GaaP really means, specifically in the Local Government space which is my professional world.

Everything I share in this post has been shared with me by someone else, I’ve been lucky to have a number of clear sighted, engaged and critical thinkers to work with, who’ve pointed me to a variety of new ideas. For some reason I’m not seeing these ideas surface in the debate so far, so I hope this post can help to change that. It certainly doesn’t say all there is on the subject, but I hope it gets the ball rolling.

My immediate trigger for writing about this is three recent blog posts, all of which are better articulations of GaaP than most. The first was from Dave Briggs, emerging from his practical experiences leading Adur & Worthing council’s Digital and Design service – “What I’m talking about when I’m talking about Government as a Platform“. The second is referenced by Dave – Sean Tubbs’ post “Platform is a Business Model. Not a Tech Stack“. Both of these posts draw strongly on on Mark Thompson’s articulation of digital government – summarised well in his recent Computerweekly article “Where next for UK government as a platform and GDS?

The thing that all of them get totally right shouts out to us from the title of Sean’s post – Platform is a Business Model. I won’t repeat the details of their arguments, but it’s worth highlighting a few statements.

Dave Briggs says:

“digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.”

and points out that platform business models use the internet

“to directly connect people with needs with those who can meet those needs”

This is the most important element of the platform business model – the role of local government changes from directly providing services, and directly commissioning services, to providing ways for demand to be aggregated and made visible to the market, and ways for the market to develop and provide services to people.

Most of the posts about GaaP take us to the brink of this point, but then pull back. For instance Sean Tubbs says:

“So, put simply, ‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers…

…Government is primarily a supplier of value-add services to the ever growing demand of the citizens of the UK…

…Government has an opportunity to transform itself to a digital business model by supplying services to citizens via a standardised common platform.”

For me, this misses the point, the “why” of the Government as a Platform debate. Drivers from two directions (at least) mean that government cannot and must not continue to conceive of itself purely as a service provider.

From one direction, we simply cannot afford to operate this way any more – social and economic needs are too complex to be resolved by a simple “citizen demand” met by “government service” equation within the scope of available public sector budgets. Traditional outsourcing is not the answer. “Big Society” is not the answer. But some form of new political settlement that recognises what we have now does not work, and harnesses the best parts of government, business and civil society is required.

Driving towards that from another direction, people’s expectations of the way that they relate to organisations have been reshaped by their experiences over the past couple of decades. In the world of consumer goods and services people expect to be able to look at reviews created by other service users who have rated and shared rich narratives about their experience (described by some as the move from the age of deference to the age of reference); they expect to be able to configure products and services to fit their needs; they expect choice, convenience and speed of delivery; and throughout all of the experience they expect transparency – to see what is happening and when.

Citizen PlatformBut above and beyond these two forces there’s an even more important point rooted in the question “what is local government (and government generally) for?” What is our purpose?

Yes, we provide services, but we also shape markets. But why? – so that our citizens and places can determine for themselves what value is. The platform is a way of tapping into existing conversations so that how people really think and feel about their local area can surface; so that these views and feelings can be discussed and new ideas for improvement put forward; and so that the best of these ideas can be selected, prototyped and implemented by whoever is best placed to do it (hardly ever the council).

In other words, the platform helps citizens co-define, co-create, and co-ordinate civic value.

Democracy does this once every 4 years, but now we need to do it every 4 minutes.

So Local Government’s role in this purpose should be as a ‘trusted’ organisation, which has similarities to platform businesses like Amazon, but is also quite different in its culpability and responsibility. If Amazon, Uber or Facebook fail to deliver, the consequences are relatively small. If care, education and housing services fail, the consequences are life-changing or even life-threatening.

Within this context, of course it’s true that the Internet and digital technologies provide a significantly different infrastructure for government in comparison to the information systems and technologies employed to automate back-office processes for the past 50 years. We see how companies like Uber, Facebook and Amazon have used these new technologies to change the game in contrast to their non-digital predecessors.

But if you’re familiar with the Business Model Canvas you’ll know that “key resources” is just one of the 9 areas for attention when you are mapping how an organisation “creates, delivers and captures value” (And if you’re familiar with Tom Grave’s Enterprise Canvas you’ll know that there are more dimensions that need to be considered if you want to make sense of the overall context in which an organisation operates – the shared enterprise which determines what value actually is.)

So my point is that if discussions of Government as a Platform always immediately plunge into details about the technology, we are fundamentally ignoring 80% of the important aspects of a new business model. In particular we should focus on the significant differences in the value propositions and key activities of a platform organisation from those of a traditional service delivery organisation.

We need to map and model our enterprises – using the tools mentioned above, and others like Simon Wardley’s “Wardley maps” that help us understand the position and movement of elements, so that we can choose how to act.

Without this, all of the detail that people are going into on how we should or shouldn’t apply digital, open standards, open source, in-house coding, commodity software-as-a-service, will simply add up to a lot of wasted time and money buying and building things that don’t contribute to a shared vision and purpose.

That’s not to say I’m advocating a return to traditional Enterprise Architecture and grand strategy, uninformed by user needs and without testing value in small incremental releases! It’s just reflecting that delivering in an agile way still needs direction, purpose, a sense of where all of the small changes are taking us.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of a big debate about the purpose of government – and I’m sure there are others who can extend the argument far more effectively than I can. Some of them will be turning their attention to these topics on Friday 11th September at the Local Democracy Maker Day as part of the Localgovcamp fringe events. Others will be contributing to a Local CIO Council discussion on “Place as a Platform” on the 10th. I hope this post is a helpful contribution to their conversations.

(My thanks go to Martin Howitt and Jo Vines for some great feedback on a draft of this post, which pointed out I’d missed the most important bit – what is the purpose of local government! I’ve stolen their words shamelessly. Of course any inadequacy in how I’ve used them is entirely my responsibility. Incidentally, as I wrote this post I kept thinking about Simon Wardley muttering “meme copying” about the whole Government as a Platform thing… he’s right, there’s a big risk that a lot of us are doing this as part of a rush to emulate a bunch of exciting startups without really understanding the context we are operating within – we need to develop our own “situational awareness” to be sure this is the right approach.)


6 thoughts on “Local Government as a Platform – beyond “delivering services digitally”

  1. Gavin

    Your “simple ‘citizen demand’ met by ‘government service’ equation” rings loud. It’s precisely what Tim O’Reilly was saying when he talked about getting away from “vending machine government” in 2010 (see video of Tim with a commentary by me). I absolutely agree with you – much of the discussions I read/hear are tech-centric and miss the point.

    I certainly don’t hear much of it from senior government leaders – politicians or civil servants. I was encouraged by Jeremy Heywood’s post More than just websites from a year ago but it was too feint on the possibilities of enabling change. Perhaps we should be talking about “Government as an enabler” instead? (Although my eyes glaze at “as an” terminology nowadays.)

    I agree too that this vision can’t be achieved through a traditional architecture job. It will come about from numberless small changes that sum to take us in the right direction. But unless that direction is fundamentally and widely understood this can’t happen. And I don’t think it is, yet. Posts like yours here are important contributions.

    (One thing… I’m not sure what you meant when you said “‘Big Society’ is not the answer”. I’m doing some work in the NHS at the moment and I’m convinced that doing a better job at enabling volunteer organisations could make a huge difference.)

    Super post, thank you


  2. onturbulence says:

    Thanks for your comment Mark, much appreciated. I was absolutely thinking about Tim O’Reilly’s formulation about getting away from Govt as a vending machine – just didn’t quote him! In Bristol we have talked about getting away from the vending machine to “citizens of the city” having a relationship with us that extends much further.

    As for the Big Society comment, I was going for impact and brevity rather than nuance! Actually I should have said “not the only answer” because you are absolutely right, enabling all kinds of voluntary contribution is key. My colleagues in adult care point out that the largest amount of social care is delivered by families with no public funding, and that’s how it should be in a caring society where we take responsibility in our communities.

  3. onturbulence says:

    Hmmm, I’m really not sure you’ve got my point at all… You’ve dived straight into a technically focused view of the infrastructure! I won’t attempt to comment on the details in your ‘reference architecture’ as it’s not my focus here.

  4. AS says:

    Actually, the e-gov reference model my blogpost provides practical solutions for some of your concerns.

    RE “‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers” — yes and (additionally to infrastructure) data, applications and many of business processes will be developed once and re-used by all the governmental entities. Thus the implementation of GaaP is cheaper, faster and better.

    Also the built-in flexibility enables better adaptation for local and personal needs of citizens.

    RE “immediately plunge into details about the technology, we are fundamentally ignoring 80% of the important aspects of a new business model.” – and the e-government reference model actually closes the majority of technology-centric debates and liberates the resources for business innovations.

    RE “That’s not to say I’m advocating a return to traditional Enterprise Architecture and grand strategy, uninformed by user needs and without testing value in small incremental releases! It’s just reflecting that delivering in an agile way still needs direction, purpose, a sense of where all of the small changes are taking us.” – fundamentally, the agility and small incremental improvements (at the scale of all governmental entities!) are carefully architectured in the e-government reference model (this is the power of enterprise architecture).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s