Platform is a Business Model. Not a Tech Stack

Amongst the hubbub of excitement and apprehension around ‘Government-as-a-Platform’; what actually is ‘platform’ and how should it challenge how government works?

One thing I’ve noticed over the last few months is the abuse of the word ‘platform’. People and suppliers seem to be replacing the word ‘app’ or ‘software’ with platform to describe their products. This may be right in some cases as Apple’s iOS is a platform, however, the true concept of ‘platform’ is not just about technology. Sure, it’s heavily enabled by it, but there’s more to the story…

So what is ‘platform’ then?

Lets start with what it isn’t — an application with an API on it. Sure a digitally enabled platform-based business model is going to need applications with robust open integration standards but they’re not going to transform a business on their own.

Whether you think of government as a ‘business’ or not. The problem can be boiled down to the classic business drivers— supply of products/services & demand from customers. So how do analogue and digital business models facilitate this interaction? Let’s take an example — the supplying of movies to people in their homes.

Analogue business models use legacy platforms to bring together supply and demand. For example, Blockbuster used retail stores across the country as a platform to supply hard copy movies to the demand of customers wanting to watch films in their homes.

Digital business models use modern internet-enabled platforms to bring together supply and demand. For example, Netflix uses Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud infrastructure as a platform to supply movie streaming to the demand of customers wanting to watch films in their homes.

In this example, Blockbuster and Netflix use different platforms & standards to mediate the supply of home movies to their customers. One chose to standardise on physical formats of movies (DVDs/BluRays) and supply them through retail stores. The other chose to standardise on a digital format of movies and supply them on vastly scalable internet-based infrastructure.

Obviously there are other differences between these two business models but this is the fundamental difference. The digital business model transformed the customer experience (because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day) from travelling, limitations and queuing to an experience of convenience, availability and speed.

In theory, there’s no reason why Blockbuster couldn’t have become ‘Block-flix’ (or ‘Net-buster’?) if they’d been willing to digitize their business model. The real questions we should be asking ourselves are — what stopped them transforming? and how could they have changed?

So, put simply, ‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers. It needs to bring together supply & demand using some shared standards which, in turn, stimulates innovation for it’s customers. Mark Thompson sums up the process of digitizing rather nicely:

“Digital transformation means gradual transition to an underlying business model that exploits ubiquitous web-based infrastructure to enable commonly shared capabilities.” — Dr Mark Thompson, Computer Weekly

But what does this have to do with Government?

Government is primarily a supplier of value-add services to the ever growing demand of the citizens of the UK. There’s a huge range of important services ranging from healthcare and emergency services through to environmental health and travel.

Our population is growing (and ageing) which is putting more and more strain on the public pocket. This means one of two things; spend smarter or cut services. Years of silo’ed working and lack of common standards has led to duplication of processes and lock-in to proprietary technologies. Worst of all, we’ve become so caught up with the running of the government machine that we’ve lost sight of our citizens needs in a digital age. We end up spending millions (& millions) of pounds on outsourcing ‘deals’ with large system integrators whilst our frontline services are forced to be cut.

(If you’re interesting in the history behind how government has ended up here, check out Alan, Mark & Jerry’s book)

‘Government-as-a-Platform’ (GaaP) should be the challenge to this behaviour and the opportunity to redefine how government operates. When Tim O’Reilly coined the term ‘Government-as-a-Platform’, he described it as:

“A new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.” — Tim O’Reilly, Open Government 2010

Put simply, government’s current business model is analogue and it’s unaffordable in a digital world. Government has an opportunity to transform itself to a digital business model by supplying services to citizens via a standardised common platform. This wont be easy and it’s going to required a lot of change. It will mean challenging all layers of the government machine — people, process, data and technology.

So where do we go from here?

Now I’m not suggesting that GaaP is Netflix or Uber (nor should it be). But it should be as disruptive as they were to their marketplaces. GaaP will mean challenge to the status quo of how things are done and redesigning of services based on strong digital principles and standards.

It isn’t going to be about just building front-end websites for citizens to ‘self-serve online’. It’s going to involve fundamentally changing the back-office processes and systems. Challenging policy on whether ineffective things must be done a certain way (or at all). This is going to be tough. But it will create new markets of innovation for suppliers to congregate around common shared standards. It will lead to the release from spend on processes & systems and redirect it towards the demand of front-line services.

Whatever happens, if we do this right, it will mean big changes to the way government operates. It will be important to keep the citizen needs at the heart of GaaP but not forgetting that getting the ‘house in order’ is a huge driver too.

I believe that it’s going to be an exciting few months as more announcements are released on the future of ‘Government-as-a-Platform’. I just hope that it’s the start of a significant paradigm shift towards a platform business model, rather than just a new shiny tech stack.