What I’m talking about when I’m talking about government as a platform


So, a little while ago I posted about government as a platform, and mentioned three main components that matter, particularly to us at Adur and Worthing with our approach.

However, I’ve been involved in various conversations where I’ve been confused about how other people define platform thinking, which I think goes to the root of the lot of the issues around the wider digital agenda – issues brought to prominence recently in the debate following several key folk from GDS deciding to leave recently.

For me, I defer to Mark Thompson‘s thinking on a lot of this stuff, which Sean Tubbs neatly summarised with the benefit of some of his practical experience.

This piece from Thompson is required reading on the two different approaches to platform thinking, and which he – and I, as it happens – think is the right one. He characterises GDS as a ‘web agency’ – which I think is a little harsh, but gets to the heart of the debate around whether digital is more front end design than fixing the back office line-of-business IT stack (hint: a great website is lovely, but real change can’t happen until the legacy is fixed, which itself can’t be achieved without thinking more widely about how your organisation works).

Effectively the proposition is this: that digital describes not a set of specific technologies or even approaches to technology, but rather the age in which we are currently living, and the appropriate operating models for that age. It also describes the way in which an ever increasing number of our customers want to interact with organisations.

Thus digital, and the strategy for delivering on the digital opportunity that is government as a platform, is not around technology but rather rethinking how organisations work.

Technology is a convenient way to practically start delivering on government as a platform, but it is very much the start of the process. This is slightly unfortunate as it does provide the opportunity for people to put digital, and platforms, into the box marked IT project, which is a massive mistake. Platform technology without a platform operating model  will never deliver on the opportunity.

So, the key elements for me when it comes to platform thinking are:

  • capabilities not systems – instead of thinking about solving problems with a single ‘system’ (think of that word in the widest sense, not just as in an IT system) we break down requirements into generic capabilities, which can then be put together, building block style, to create the most appropriate solution to the problem at the time
  • making use of commoditised, utility-like computing – in government, we do not need to be using bespoke technology, but instead in many instances can use what the market can provide, at a much lower cost than traditional technology – which then frees up resource for the front line (which is the key bit)
  • solutions for now that don’t limit us in future – capabilities must be designed in such a way that they are not ‘hard coded’ (tech metaphor, sorry) for the way they run now, but so they can be flexible to meet future needs which may be very different
  • create and consume – the platform must be put together in such a way that both we and other organisations can make use of its capabilities, as both creators (building our own apps) and consumers (making use of what others have done)
  • disintermediation – or getting rid of the middle men. Catherine Howe spoke a lot about this a few years ago – showing her talent for prescience yet again. We’re only now really starting to see the effects of this with the likes of Uber and Airbnb cutting out bureaucracy and using the internet to directly connect people with needs with those who can meet those needs. These are true digital business models, not just slapping nicely designed front end lipstick onto legacy pigs.

This is what has been so frustrating about some recent discussions – rather than focusing on the big picture of rethinking operating models, folk go straight into IT mode and start discussing which booking system is best, or who has the payment engine everyone should be using. The concept of capabilities is grasped, but only at the level of technology, not any further.

So, at Adur and Worthing, we are at the very beginning of delivery of platform thinking and operating models. We starting, as is customary, within the domain of technology – but we are not limiting ourselves to that, and are constantly challenging our thinking to ensure we don’t continue to work in non-digital age ways outside of tech.

With technology, we build or buy capabilities that can then be used and re-used many times to deliver appropriate solutions to needs, both by us and by others, and we are also able to consume on the platform too – so if someone else has something neat we’d like to use, we can slot it into our systems. This way of working can happen with other assets, as well as tech, though – people, knowledge, skills, buildings, open spaces, vehicles – anything.

The key is to construct our organisation in such a way that all our assets are effectively capabilities that can be used in different ways by different people – and indeed so that we can bring in assets from elsewhere on the ‘platform’. Often this this supported by digital technology, but that isn’t the starting point, nor the outcome.

For example, I’ve recently been thinking about how ‘people as a platform’ might work in the local area. How can we make the most of the people who work at the Council – and their expertise and skills – as well as those who don’t work here but nonetheless might help us make things happen?

The capability here might be an effective time banking system, enabling people and organisations to trade knowledge, skills, time spent etc without the need for money to change hands  – borrowing in expertise as needed, paid for via hours donated to the wider system previously, without the need for costly administration to link people up, make the transactions and so forth.

(On a side note, how exciting would it be for such a time-trading system to work via some kind of blockchain technology, as Lloyd talks about in this post?)

Hopefully this example is useful – a non technology asset being shared across a system, (re-)usable in a number of different contexts, supported by a digital platform, built upon off-the shelf utility technology, which cuts out the need for central bureaucracy. That’s where we need to be with government as a platform.

So, to recap: 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.

It is not about fixing on a single solution for everything, but creating an ecosystem of innovation, where different solutions can compete to deliver the right capability needed by the people using the platform.

It is not about making everyone use computers to do everything, but instead is about making use of modern, internet enabled tech to run a sufficiently minimal back office that enables us to maintain, and potentially grow, front line delivery of what customers need (see Buurtzorg – and see if you can spot me and Mary McKenna in that video).

Hoping to have a chat about this at LocalGovCamp. Come along – it’ll be a blast.

12 thoughts on “What I’m talking about when I’m talking about government as a platform”

  1. Hi Dave, good thought-provoking post(s). I’d argue there’s perhaps a distinction between what a platform does and what a platform is for – or to be clearer, what makes something a “platform” rather than, say, a service, and what it actually lets people do.

    Philosophically, a “platform” should support people doing stuff, as you point out. More importantly, it needs to be a stable platform, in the sense that people know it’s not going to change. Investment in adopting a platform, whether it’s internally, from a commercial interest, or on a citizen basis, ties back to a) can I work out how to use “it” for my needs, and b) can I expect to use “it” for my needs as long as I need to?

    In software dev, arguments over frameworks and libraries are an every day thing – the usefulness of each as a platform for developing functionality depends on documentation, support, and general attitude/direction of the people behind it. None of these are particular a “technical” thing though – all are a way to instill learning and confidence in users.

    Maybe this pushes us more towards a needs-based model, rather than a supply/capability-based one? ie. what do end users need to access in order to build something useful? This is somethind I’d love to explore around opening up data, for instance, if I ever find the time 🙂

    Too often the outputs and interfaces are tied inherently to both the technology and the organisation model, so changing either forces everything else to change. Maybe by looking at the points of interaction, and settling on standards/guidance for these, the move towards decoupling the “use” from the “machinery” can start to progress?


    1. Great stuff Dave, really like the concept. I think this tallies with what I’ve been thinking of as the agile organisation.

      I continue to be bemused by the old conundrum that these things need to be business led, and yet it’s often the IT / digital people who latch on to these ideas first! Hope you’re settling into ardur nicely, Jon

  2. I’m really excited by this, and really enjoyed reading Mark Thompson’s piece that you linked to. I’ll definitely be joining this discussion at Local Gov Camp, it has so much synergy with work I have been doing around participatory (non-tech) platforms for peer-to-peer production of outcomes in neighbourhoods through practical projects and activities. Thank you for pulling together these thoughts in advance of the Local Gov Camp, I am now completely assured that I will get what I want from the day.

  3. Hi Dave,
    I really like your article, but would suggest it could go a lot further – perhaps a part 2…
    You suggest that the community that local government serve could help the council with its objectives. Let’s reverse that for a moment and head for the spaces of neighbourhood planning, consensual democracy, community organising & community economic planning. How could digital platforms enable a better integration between council officers & the aspirations/drive/action of ordinary citizens? Rather than sterile consultations of politically driven policies cooked up in a back room (which may or may not be aligned with community desires or reality), how about we use this great digital platform opportunity to really open up local democracy, asking every question to every citizen. This could radically improve efficiency too – instead of high costs of delay, we could have agility & decision making at the speed of social media. Thoughts?

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