A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope
Jul 22, 2019 · 13 min read

Government as a Platform (GaaP) has come to mean many things to many people since the publication of the article with that title by Tim O’Reilly in 2011.¹ These include a route to better public services; the breaking down of organizational silos; as a toolkit for civil servants; an open platform to build upon; as new public infrastructure; a short-hand for co-production of policy; and paving the way for new institutions that are fit for the digital age.

In much the same way that the term ‘smart cities’ is used to cover everything from parking apps to delivery robots and invasive digital advertising, there is a risk that the usage of what is an evermore important concept starts to cover a range that becomes too broad, too vague, or is seen as contradictory. Additionally, important considerations, such as public safety and democratic accountability, often appear to be missing from the today’s debate.

With more governments around the world adopting a platform approach, the lack of a clear, actionable definition could become a problem. Conversely, an accepted “working definition” of GaaP could act as a useful decision-making tool for civil servants. This article presents such a definition by bringing together a subset of the ways people have used the term, emphasizing considerations of safety and democratic accountability, and aiming to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in usage.

7 framings of Government as a Platform

The different framings of GaaP that follow are based on examples from the limited published literature on the subject, from government programmes around the world that have adopted a “platform like” approach, and from more general commentary on the subject. It is important to note that the quotes included almost certainly don’t represent the totality of what the people quoted think about the subject. The aim here is to illustrate the variety that exists rather than present an exhaustive literature review.²

GaaP has been described by several governments as a route to better public services.

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) adopted the ‘Government as a Platform’ label in early 2015 for the next phase of its digital transformation work. From the early days of the UK GaaP programme, there was a clear articulation that it could provide a route to developing better services “brilliant, user-centric government services” that were “more closely targeted at user needs”.³ ⁴

Writing more recently about UK government efforts around GaaP, technologist Jerry Fishenden has talked about the latent opportunity for technology platforms to have a “genuinely significant role in improving the quality of life for citizens and public employees alike …. particularly their ability to respond to realtime feedback to make continuous service improvements.⁵

The Estonian government has talked about using its X-Road platform to make “invisible services” for 15 significant life events, such as the birth of a child.⁶ Singapore’s GovTech agency is following a similar approach and has developed a “Moments of Life” service, which is built on shared government platforms.⁷

In the USA, Aneesh Chopra and Nick Sinai, formerly of the Obama administration, have talked about the promise of APIs to enable the federal government to better “partner with local government, nonprofits, and businesses to better serve the American people — extending its reach and helping solve our nation’s challenges”.⁸

There is a lot of duplication in government. Departments and agencies are, generally, vertically integrated, all running their own versions of similar systems (a public website, a payment gateway, a printing service, an address lookup, etc.). Platforms have also been cited as a way to remove that duplication and break down organizational silos.⁹

Mike Bracken, the UK’s former Chief Digital Officer, said in 2015 that:

“Siloed approaches to transformation don’t work. Reinventing the wheel every single time we build a service has led to far too much duplication and waste. That’s not good enough.”¹⁰

In the US, the Obama administration’s digital government white-paper Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People makes a case for government to “build for multiple use cases at once”.¹¹ Similarly, the Australian Digital Transformation agency explicitly talks in terms of “Whole of government digital platforms”.¹²

Another way to explain the potential for platforms to remove duplication is to view cross-government shared components, such as login.gov in the US, GOV.UK Pay in the UK and Il Cloud della PA in Italy, as part of a toolkit for designing services.

For example, the Scottish government describes its payment platform project in terms of:

“building something centrally that is easy for service teams to plug into and re-use, without additional procurement. That saves them time, money and hassle.”¹³

The UK Government as a Platform team came to see their work in this light and the focus of their programme became making tools for digital teams elsewhere in government. Today, it’s platforms are part of a “Service toolkit” along with official guidance, standards and a design system.¹⁴ This became a point of criticism by some who asked if they were developing “Government as a platform, or a platform for government?”.¹⁵ ¹⁶

Similar to the “government toolkit” concept, but with an explicitly broader intent, is the idea of government platforms as a set of tools for government and non-government organizations alike.

The Indian government’s IndiaStack is a set of components and APIs for, among other things, identity verification, digital payments and storing official documents. These components are explained in terms that make it clear they are aimed at wider societal transformation rather than government transformation. IndiaStack is described as “a set of APIs that allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise an unique digital Infrastructure to solve India’s hard problems”.¹⁷

In the US too, there is a strong narrative around building open APIs to allow the private sector and third sector to develop services that meet the “long-tail” of user needs. For example, the U.S. Veterans Administration has begun to build its services around APIs. It talks about these in terms of “Empowering our partners to build innovative, Veteran-centered solutions.”¹⁸

There is also a narrative of APIs, data and cross-government components as infrastructure, analogous to government projects in the physical world.

In Rebooting India, the book that details the development of Aadhaar and other platforms, there is a quote from the former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee comparing technology platforms with those of a railway system:

“See, it is just like a railway platform. Different trains pull up at a railway platform, each with a different destination, and people get on and off depending on where they are headed. In the same way, the technology platform is a central location where various state government, institutions and citizens can gather. All government services are offered on the same platform, and citizens can enrol for all eligible services in one place.”¹⁹

The Societal Platforms project, also in India, talks of the platforms it imagines for cities, healthcare and education as “foundational infrastructure” and the Government of India’s proposed National Health Stack talks in similar terms.²⁰ ²¹ As part of its work to encourage better use of data, the Open Data Institute also encourages governments to think about “data infrastructure”, making parallels with a country’s road networks.²² ²³

Others have talked about GaaP as providing a route to new institutions fit for the digital age. This sees digital government entwined with institutional reform and requiring a reorganization of the very work of government.

Former UK Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude said after leaving office, that:

“If you were to create government today, you would not build it around large, free standing Departments of State. Instead of a series of siloed hierarchies, you would structure it as a platform responding to the needs of the end user … Government as a Platform will not happen without clear direction from the top”.²⁴

In a blog post entitled “Making government as a platform real”, Tom Loosemore, formerly of the UK Government Digital Service states that:

“If you want a natively digital nation, or a state, or a city, or whatever, my message today is you actually need to be bold enough to create some new institutions; institutions that are of the internet, not on the internet”.

In India, this narrative has become a reality, with new institutions setup to operate digital identity and taxation platforms.²⁵

Some descriptions of GaaP are less focused on the mechanics of government, or the component pieces of platform government. These tend to relate to a general aspiration or opportunity to use digital to engage more citizens in the running of their government through the ‘co-production’ of policies or services.

The OECD’s Digital Government Review of Sweden of 2018 defines GaaP in a similar way. It talks about using data to ‘’harness the creativity of people” to “jointly address policy challenges”.²⁶

David Bartlett, former Premier of Tasmania, has talked in similar terms writing that:

“while there is a role for experts in government as a platform, there is a much more significant role for the non-expert population in co-creating solutions”.²⁷

In their comparison of private and public sector platforms, academics Lydia Ottlewski and Johanna Gollnhofer define public sector platforms in terms of of systems that help citizens to connect and to exchange services to solve societal problems.²⁸

What’s missing?

The framings above show a lot of breadth. That should not be a surprise. Tim O’Reilly’s original 2011 article was itself a broad call for government to make the most of the opportunities of digitisation and we can see the germs of many of the examples above in that article.

However, I think there is a key concept missing in many of today’s conversations about GaaP, and that is how to make sure these new systems are accountable and safe. This was, however, part of the 2011 article. O’Reilly talked about the importance of “rules of the road” to ensure government operates in a way that generates the best outcomes and without creating unintended harm. Also, that choices about how platforms operate must be periodically revisited to ensure that this remains the case.

With all we have learnt about the impact of commercial digital platforms on society in the last decade, such issues of trust, accountability and safety demand more space in the debate around digital government. That’s because, as well as creating new opportunities for better public services and saving money, platform government brings with it further questions about the risks of centralization of data, and the privacy rights of citizens. Platforms also bring questions of accountability and democracy — which government agency should be held to account when a shared platform fails? If central and local government as both reliant on the same platforms, what does it mean for local democracy and devolved power?

The debate around the Aadhaar identity platform in India provides a good insight into of the types of issues other countries will likely face as they adopt a platform approach to government.

These are fundamental questions about how the mechanics of government should operate and be held accountable in the digital age. For this reason, aspirations for “co-production” of policies and services feel like a distraction when it comes to examining the role of citizens in these systems. Instead, it is important to focus on ensuring positive outcomes and providing clear routes for accountability.²⁹

Why create a “working” definition of platform government?

As the above examples show, there are many ways in which the term “Government as a Platform” and the more general concept of digital platforms in government have been deployed since 2011. The question is, is there a working definition that encompasses some of the above, while remaining useful? To do that, we first need to answer the questions of “useful to whom?” and “useful how?”.

The intended audience here is digital service units (organizations setup within governments to design, build and operate digital services).³⁰ Such groups are being created in governments around the world. Increasingly, they are developing shared platforms.

A good working definition of GaaP should give such units a framework for their work, helping them to present it as a whole (including the aspects that maybe politically difficult or seem superficially less important). It should name the different constituent parts of GaaP that digital service units will need to consider, while avoiding generalities and vague language. It should also aim to resolve any apparent (but false) contradictions that GaaP is for use inside or outside government; if it is primarily about technology or institutional reform; efficiency or accountability. It is all of these things and all are necessary.

Ultimately, it should help them to make decisions about which work to prioritize. Things like: “Does this project we are starting fit as part of government as a platform?” or “Is that smart-city-blockchain-widget Consultancy X is trying to sell going to help?”. In short, a working definition should help digital service units ask and answer questions.

Proposing a working definition

With that in mind, and based on the above examples, the following definition aims to help digital service units by defining GaaP as follows:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

This definition is aiming to achieve a few things:

  1. It is trying to make clear that the goal of platform government must be to enable radically better services for the public and that everything else is subservient to that aim.
  2. That services for the public can be delivered by a range of different actors — government, charities, businesses, etc. — all built on common foundations.
  3. These common foundations are made up of canonical datasets (definitive lists of things like tax rates, licenses or addresses), open-standards (common ways of modelling data), shared APIs (that expose the business logic of government, such as tracking the status of an application) and shared components (things like shared hosting or common design systems).
  4. That considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.
  5. Finally, that the adoption of platform approaches in government will result in changes to how the work of government is organized. Platform government is, in part, about institutional reform, not just making the way things are done today more efficient.

1. Tim O’Reilly, “Government as a Platform”, Innovations, Vol. 6, Issue. 1, Pages. 13–40, January 2011, https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/INOV_a_00056

2. See this for a more comprehensive literature review: Alan Brown, Jerry Fishenden, Mark Thompson and Will Venters, “Appraising the impact and role of platform models and Government as a Platform (GaaP) in UK Government public service reform: towards a Platform Assessment Framework (PAF)” Government Information Quarterly, 34 (2). pp. 167–182, 2017, http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/841964/

3. “Government as a Platform is a new vision for digital government; a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.” Mike Braken, “Government as a Platform: the next phase of digital transformation”, GDS Blog, 29th March 2019, https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2015/03/29/government-as-a-platform-the-next-phase-of-digital-transformation/

4. “In a world of easily shared government as a platform, services will be cheaper and easier to make. When that happens there will be more services, more closely targeted at user needs.” Louise Downe, “Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns”, Design in Government Blog, 22nd June 2015, https://designnotes.blog.gov.uk/2015/06/22/good-services-are-verbs-2/

5. Jerry Fishenden, “The political opportunity — and threat — of better public services”, New tech observations from the UK (ntouk), 7th January 2019, https://ntouk.wordpress.com/2019/01/07/the-political-opportunity-and-threat-of-better-public-services/

6. Sam Trendell, “‘We have only scratched the surface’ — Estonia’s CIO on what’s next for the world’s most celebrated digital nation”, PublicTechnology.net, 18th February 2019, https://www.publictechnology.net/articles/features/‘we-have-only-scratched-surface’-–-estonia’s-cio-what’s-next-world’s-most

7. GovTech Singapore, “The Tech Behind The Moments Of Life (Families) App”, https://www.tech.gov.sg/media/technews/the-tech-behind-the-moments-of-life. Retrieved 13th June 2019.

8. Aneesh Chopra and Nick Sinai, “Wholesale Government: Open Data and APIs”, Medium, 9th April 2015, https://medium.com/@ShorensteinCtr/wholesale-government-open-data-and-apis-7d5502f9e2be

9. David Eaves and Ben McGuire, “Lessons from Estonia on digital government”, Policy Options, 7th February 2019, http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2019/lessons-estonia-digital-government/ — See this for a description of duplication and waste

10. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2015/03/29/government-as-a-platform-the-next-phase-of-digital-transformation/

11. “Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People”, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/omb/egov/digital-government/digital-government.html

12. Australian Government, “Digital Service Platforms Strategy”, https://www.dta.gov.au/our-projects/digital-service-platforms-strategy/our-future-vision-built-digital-platforms

13. Clare Mills, “Payments Project — Introducing the Payments Project”, Scottish Government Digital Blog, 12th march 2019, https://blogs.gov.scot/digital/2019/03/12/payments-project-introducing-the-payments-project/

14. HM Government, “Design and build government services”, https://www.gov.uk/service-toolkit#gov-uk-services. Retrieved 26th June 2019.

15. “Interview with Will Myddelton — UK Government as a Platform programme”, 29th October 2018, https://medium.com/platform-land/interview-with-will-myddelton-government-as-a-platform-3aff4ebcb3e8

16. Mark Thompson, “Government as a platform, or a platform for government? Which are we getting?”, Computer Weekly, 3rd June 2015, https://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Government-as-a-platform-or-a-platform-for-government-Which-are-we-getting

17. “About India Stack”, https://indiastack.org/about/

18. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Put VA Data to Work”, https://developer.va.gov. Retrieved 5th June 2019.

19. Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah, Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations, Penguin Books, 2016, page xxviii

20. Societal Platform, “Societal Platform Thinking: Catalyzing Ecosystems to Resolve Societal Challenges”, https://societalplatform.org/articles/societal-platform-thinking-catalyzing-ecosystems-to-resolve-societal-changes/. Retrieved 4th May 2019.

21. Government of India, “National Health Stack, Strategy and Approach”, July 2018, https://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/documentpublication/NHS-Strategy-and-Approach-Document-for-consultation

22. ODI, “What is data infrastructure?”https://theodi.org/topic/data-infrastructure/

23. Peter Wells, “Aim to be boring: lessons for data infrastructure”, ODI Blog, 26th August 2015, https://theodi.org/article/aim-to-be-boring-lessons-for-data-infrastructure/

24. Jonathan Dupont, “Redesigning government in the era of intelligent services”, https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/The-Smart-State-1.pdf

25. In India, the Goods and Services Tax Network operates APIs and other infrastructure needed to operate the national harmonized sales tax. 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). Aadhaar, the identity verification platform, is operated by the Unique Identification Authority of India.

26. OECD, “Digital Government Review of Sweden: Towards a data-driven public sector”, October 2018, http://www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government/key-findings-digital-government-review-of-sweden-2018.htm

27. David Bartlett, “Government as a Platform” Opening Government: Transparency and Engagement in the Information Age, 2018, pp. 37 — 44

28. Lydia Ottlewski and Johanna Gollnhofer, “Private and Public Sector Platforms — Characteristics and Differences”, Marketing Review St, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331980681_Private_and_Public_Sector_Platforms_-_Characteristics_and_Differences

29. Some of these may well be collaborative in nature

30. David Eaves and Ben McGuire, “Digital service teams: the end of the beginning?”, Apolitico, 29th November 2018, https://apolitical.co/solution_article/digital-service-teams-end-of-beginning/

Project on Digital Era Government

The Project on Digital Era Government at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center