Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 1 — Introduction

Richard Pope
Project on Digital Era Government
3 min readMar 10, 2019

Government as a Platform is the approach of reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs, open-standards and canonical datasets. The hope is that this will allow public servants, businesses, and others deliver radically better services to the public, and to do so more safely, efficiently, democratically, and in a more accountable way.

The introduction of platform thinking to government is sometimes presented as a simple game of catchup with internet-age organizations in the private sector — like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (aka the FAANG’s). Those organizations do show the value of platforms: less duplication, better service design and faster development cycles. They also provide something of a template to copy: empowered teams organized around shared platforms and products, not departments, use of agreed standards, well-documented APIs, etc. But, it is too narrow a framing.

A better framing would be this: we already know something of what makes a good platform ecosystem from the FAANG’s of the world, so how can we understand what if anything is unique about the government context; which bits are hard for technical reasons, and which bits are just plain hard?.¹

(Spoiler alert: most of them are not technology problems, although there are some.)

This series will start to answer that question and point to areas in need of more debate, understanding, or research. Hopefully, it will also highlight some things that private companies could learn from governments, particularly around trust and accountability.

The next four parts will cover different layers of the Government as a Platform stack one by one.

Starting with public-facing services, Design of services & public policy will address issues relating to the development of public-facing services. Shared components, APIs and the machinery of government will cover cross-government components and APIs that expose business logic to emerge and, critically, what this might mean for the organizational structure of government. Data infrastructure and registers will talk about how government stewardship of data needs to change. Finally, Identity and trust will talk about the challenges of realizing Government as a Platform in a way that is safe, accountable and trusted.

Two final things to note as part of this introduction.

Digital platforms in government are an emerging and (currently) fairly limited phenomena. As such, please read what follows as “strong ideas loosely held” and as topics for further discussion. For the same reason, there is fuzziness surrounding definitions and terminology, so not all the examples listed in the subsequent posts will be true cross-government platforms, but are included because they illustrate a particular risk, opportunity or direction of travel.

Secondly, and by far the most important, what follows will be in line with the values set out at the beginning of this introduction:

  • The goal of Government as a Platform must be able to enable radically better services for the public. And do so in a way that makes it simpler and faster for both civil servants and politicians, the private sector and non-profits, to meet people’s needs.
  • Considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.
  • The emergence of government platforms represents a new way of organizing the work of government. As such, the task at hand is not to understand how we patch existing systems of government, but of how we adapt to something new that will come with its own set of opportunities and challenges, risks and prizes.

Read part 2 — Design of services & public policy

This blog posted edited for style by Eva Weber.

  1. Interview with Gareth Rushgrove, 15th October 2018
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