Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 3 – shared components, APIs and the machinery of government
Government as a Platform is the approach of reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical data registers. The hope is that this will allow public servants, businesses, and others to deliver radically better services to the public, and to do so safely, efficiently, democratically, and in a more accountable way. This article is part of a series looking at some of the difficult design, policy and technology questions posed by the Government as a Platform concept.
Small parts, loosely joined
In his article that coined the phrase Government as a Platform, Tim O’Reilly cites the philosophy on 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
In the context of the Government as a Platform stack, shared APIs and components, are exactly this – small parts, loosely joined together by open standards.
Shared APIs expose the business logic of government – for example calculating a benefit payment or checking the status of an application. The APIs developed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs provides a good example of this, as does Open311, which defines a standard API for civic issue tracking – things like broken streetlights or potholes – and is in use in many cities.³ ⁴
Shared components, such as those developed by the UK, US, India and Italy, solve common problems for the whole of government (and potentially beyond).⁵ ⁶ ⁷ ⁸ ⁹ For example: sending a text message, hosting a web application, taking a payment or signing a document.
As we explored in part 2, these have the potential to make it quicker and simpler to design public facing services that are organized around the needs of citizens, rather than the structure of government. That’s because services can be built on top of these shared foundations. However, the potential for better services comes with new questions about the machinery of government, funding models, and how to operate such platforms safely and securely.
Security, robustness and funding
Today, national and local governments operate multiple payment gateways, hosting setups, and other systems. Local governments often operate functionally similar legacy systems to each other, for managing things like planning applications, or health and safety inspections. Each of these systems needs actively maintaining and protecting against security, data protection and other risks.
Shared components could represent an opportunity of better responding to such threats. However, the dependencies that shared components and APIs create could lead to new risks too.
We know from the private sector that if multiple services are tightly coupled to the same platform, and that platform fails, the services that rely on it may fail too. For example, in 2017 a bug in Amazon’s S3 platform resulted in several high profile commercial services going off-line, and in 2018 Google’s App Engine had a similar effect.¹⁰ ¹¹ ¹²
Bugs are a fact of life. As are malicious attacks. It’s also a side effect of a genuine platform that it’s hard to know exactly how users will make use of it (as such, unexpected usage patterns by legitimate users, may have the same effects as something more malicious). Together, these mean that as much attention needs to be focused on how such platforms are operated and funded, as on their functional role. In most cases, this will mean a standing team, funded for the long-term, who understand their users and can operate and continuously improve the platform, and respond to such risks. (For an overview of the types of issues that such teams need to respond to, the GOV.UK team regularly publish incident reports).¹³
For governments used to modes of funding not suited to platforms, such as funding fixed-term projects or operating on a cost recovery basis, this may represent a big change both practically and culturally.¹⁴
In addition to changes to funding and capability, shared components and APIs represent a break with the traditional ways the work of government has been organized. We are used to the idea of government being organized into vertically-integrated thematic agencies (environment, benefits, tax, driving etc). And with the idea of hierarchically and geographically organized government (local, municipal, devolved, state, provincial government etc).
These platforms represent a change to something more networked.
For example, the government cloud hosting platforms in the USA and UK – Cloud.gov and GOV.UK PaaS respectively – are in use by agencies across federal and central government. Similarly, the GOB.MX and GOV.UK publishing platforms are operated centrally, for the benefit of the whole government.
Different tiers of government may become reliant on platforms operated by another tier. In India, for example, NIC Cloud/MeghRaj (the ‘private cloud’ operated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) allows users from central government, states and districts.¹⁵ Similarly, the GOV.UK Notify platform is used by central and local government.¹⁶
Shared components like these cut across verticals and hierachies, and mean agencies may no longer operate their own payments system or host their own websites.
Similarly, shared APIs mean agencies at any level of government may become responsible for operating APIs used by services outside the walls of their organization, and potentially outside of government altogether.
For example, the agency responsible for Argentina’s driving licences does not operate the country’s new digital driving licence service, instead, it just provides an API that is used by the miArgentina platform (which is operated by the country’s central digital agency).¹⁷ And the APIs of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are used by non-governmental veteran’s organisations to submit claims on behalf of those they are supporting.¹⁸
Again, the challenges here are partly cultural. It requires a change of perspective, from organizations thinking about their own mission, towards thinking about where they fit in the wider mission of government and their role in supporting wider society. But it also creates new power dynamics.
New power dynamics, new institutions
Hopefully, it is clear by now that Government as a Platform does not represent the replacement of old technology with new. Rather, it is about the creation of new capabilities and ways of working that rewire how government operates in the digital age. As such, it has the potential to challenge existing balances of power within government.
The institutions operating shared components could become quite powerful, with the ability to make changes to multiple public facing services, including those provided by another tier of government. They may also have “line-of-sight” over large areas of the lives of citizens. (Imagine, for example, a single appointment booking platform for the public sector – it might contain information about everything from healthcare to education and housing).
Constitutional arrangements between central and regional or municipal governments may make it hard for different parts of government to rely on each other’s platforms. Political differences (or political optics) could also play a role.
The question governments therefore need to answer is this: what are the appropriate characteristics of institutions capable of operating shared infrastructure for the greater good rather than the priorities of a thematic agency, while remaining accountable?
This may need to include novel classes of institution.
In the UK, the success of GDS was in part that it was a new organization at the center of government, with responsibilities across government. (It is one that has been copied by many other countries, and one many have argued is currently under threat in the UK).¹⁹
In India, the Goods and Services Tax Network operates APIs and other infrastructure needed to operate the national harmonized sales tax.²⁰ ²¹ GSTN is a non-profit company owned partly by the national and state level governments. (The harmonization of sales taxes itself required a change to India’s constitution).
There are as yet no good examples of local governments working collaboratively to operate platforms, but the answer to that is likely to be institutional too.²²
Whatever the answers, machinery of government changes such as these will require a combination of significant political capital and collaborative working to enact.
- “Unix philosophy”, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy
2. Peter H. Salus, “A Quarter-Century of Unix”, 1994
3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “VA API Platform”, https://developer.va.gov
4. Open311, http://www.open311.org
5. India Stack, describes itself as “a set of APIs that allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise an unique digital Infrastructure to solve India’s hard problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery.”, IndiaStack, “What is India Stack?”, https://indiastack.org/about/
6. U.S. General Services Administration, ‘’Products and Platforms”, https://handbook.18f.gov/products-and-platforms/
7. HM Government, “Design and build government services”, https://www.gov.uk/service-toolkit#gov-uk-services
8. Team Digitale, “Projects”, https://teamdigitale.governo.it/en/projects.htm
9. According to the 2019 Whitehall Monitor report, the UK’s messaging platform GOV.UK Notify was in use by 459 public-facing services across central and local government. GOV.UK Pay was in use by 51 services. Not all those would have replaced existing systems, but it illustrates the potential for removing duplication. Institute for Government, “Whitehall Monitor 2019", https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/whitehall-monitor-2019/digital
10. Jason Del Ray, “Amazon’s massive AWS outage was caused by human error”, 2nd March 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/3/2/14792636/amazon-aws-internet-outage-cause-human-error-incorrect-command
11. Amazon, “Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region”, https://aws.amazon.com/message/41926/
12. Google Cloud Platform, “Google Cloud Networking Incident #18012", https://status.cloud.google.com/incident/cloud-networking/18012
13. Government Digital Service, “Incident roundup – August 2018", Inside GOV.UK, 3rd April 2019, https://insidegovuk.blog.gov.uk/2019/04/03/incident-roundup-august-2018/
14. Cost recovery is not an ideal way to fund platform development because the cost per-transaction declines over time as more users use it. That means the cost is highest for early users. Cost recovery may also be too high a bar for low-frequency users. Because of central funding, the GOV.UK Notify messaging platform, for example, was able to serve more users, as they are able to offer the service free to the majority of users.
15. National Informatics Centre, “Frequently Asked Questions | National Cloud of NIC”, https://cloud.gov.in/faq.php
16. “GOV.UK Notify – Features”, https://www.notifications.service.gov.uk/features
17. Mike Bracken, “Argentina just made driving licences digital”, Public Digital blog, 12th February 2019, https://public.digital/2019/02/12/argentina-just-made-driving-licences-digital/
18. “VA’s Benefits Intake API”, YouTube, https://developer.va.gov/explore/facilities
19. Bryan Glick, “GDS is ‘sidelined’ and government as a platform ‘is dead’, says Francis Maude”, Computer Weekly, 14th September 2017, [https://www.computerweekly.com/news/450426316/GDS-is-being-sidelined-and-government-as-a-platform-is-dead-says-Francis-Maude]
20. Goods and Services Tax Network, “About Us”, https://www.gstn.org/about-us/
21. Please do not read this as an argument that government platforms need to be operated by non-profits. It is, however, an example of a novel institutional response.
22. There are examples of international cooperation, which we’ll return to later.