Government as a Platform: a new way of thinking about digital transformation

The term ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) was coined by Tim O’Reilly, a technology entrepreneur and advocate.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for UK Government digital transformation, has started to introduce ‘platform thinking’ to government services. However, according to a survey carried out in February, three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand ‘Government as a Platform’. This may be concerning for government, whose efficiency programme greatly relies on successful digital transformation.

On the blog today, I’m going to reflect on the concept of ‘Government as a Platform’, as well as outlining its adoption in the UK.

The ‘gubbins’ of government

Mark Foden, an organisational change strategist, explains the platform-based view of government in a simple (and humorous) video.

In his view, government has traditionally been made up of independent departments, providing services such as benefits, pensions, and tax. These services use bespoke technology provided by large technology companies, over long contracts.

However, the platform based-view is different. He illustrates this by splitting a government department into three sections:

  • Levers and dials – the part of the service the user interacts with (e.g. websites and mobile apps)
  • ‘Gubbins’ – in simple terms, it’s the common capabilities (e.g. checking identity) and the bespoke services (e.g. calculating tax) that government services need to function
  • Machinery – the fundamentals of technology (e.g. mainframe computers, storage, and databases)

Foden explains that a key element to platform thinking is the ‘gubbins’ section. Advances in technology now make it possible to untangle these ‘gubbins’ government services, without affecting others. In practice, this means that common capabilities used by government, such as making payments or checking identity can be developed and used across departments. Websites can also be shared to create consistency across government digital services – a sort of ‘brand government’. This approach limits the number of bespoke services developed in ‘silos’ (or within departments).

Additionally, having this separation between common capabilities and bespoke services also presents opportunities to involve a greater number of suppliers.

Potentially, this approach could be worth £35 billion in savings across government.

Organising Government as a Platform

Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests three principles to enable Government as a Platform to succeed:

  • gradually moving towards more common capabilities and reducing departmental bespoke services.
  • developing common capabilities across the public sector must be a priority for digital transformation.
  • optimising the relationship between common capabilities and bespoke services within government departments

The UK approach

GDS

A widely used definition by the GDS is that digital government should include:

 “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK was the first attempt to transform how the UK does government. Launching in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone saved more than £60m a year. Early testing also showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK Verify has also been introduced – an identity assurance platform which allows people to prove who they are when using government services. The common service is the first of its kind and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to build new services.

More recently, GOV.UK Notify, a service which sends text messages, emails or letters, has sent notifications to its first users. GOV.UK Pay also just secured compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

NHS

Although the GDS have taken the lead on platform thinking, the NHS launched NHS Jobs, a shared recruitment service, in 2003. The service has been remarkably successfully, generating over £1 billion in savings.

Mark Thompson suggests this is because of its platform approach. The Department of Health (DoH), working alongside Methods Consulting, convinced over 500 NHS employers to give up their own recruitment services and to make use of this common capability. The website is the biggest single employer recruitment site in Europe, with one unique visit every two seconds. The service has also become a valuable commodity with suppliers willing to provide the service at near cost, and compete on providing innovative services. The creation of this high quality recruitment service has therefore become a spur for innovation – something which is at the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s work on Government as a Platform.

Local government

Adur and Worthing council have recently taken a platform approach to their digital transformation. Paul Brewer, digital lead for the council, notes that it was struggling on several fronts, including IT outages and systems replicating inefficient paper-based processes.

To solve this problem, the council went through a capability mapping exercise. They identified departments which had common functions, such as undertaking case management, taking payments and booking appointments for customers. With this roadmap, they developed a CRM system to manage customer interactions (including social media), and purchased a platform which supports the creation a range of new IT products. The new approach enabled the council’s waste management service to support full mobile and remote working. Within a year, the department saved £20,000 on software and the equivalent of 1.5 staff members.

Interestingly, the council did not build their own platform, on the GDS model. Nor did they purchase an inflexible technology. Instead, they chose a third way by purchasing the building blocks of capability, and controlling where the capability was slotted in.

Final thoughts

The lack of knowledge about Government as a Platform within the civil service is somewhat disheartening. However, the GDS has introduced many new approaches to government and shown practically how they can work. Projects such as GOV.UK and GOV.UK Verify have been well received and countries such as New Zealand have looked towards the UK for their own digital transformation.

In August, the UK was ranked as global leader for e-participation on the United Nations E-Government Survey, ahead of Australia and South Korea.

 

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