Real-world government platforms

‘Government as a platform’ normally gets talked about in terms of shared digital capabilitiesthings like hosting, identity or payments.

The GOV.UK Notify platform applies the concept of shared capabilities to the physical world too. As well as sending emails and SMS messages, Notify can send physical letters, via a standard API for printing and postage.

This gives the public servants designing user-facing services, a standard, well-documented way of sending letters – one which is quicker and simpler than creating something bespoke. It also (presumably) gives the Notify team the ability to swap printers to get better prices.

Applying the approach of seeking out duplication, then creating a common capability, to the physical world raises some interesting opportunities for governments:

  • Viewing call centres as a standard capability, with a Twillio style API wrapper around them, could give governments a standard way of managing demand for larger services, and an economic way for smaller services to add a phone channel for users who need it.

Now, those examples are all about placing a wrapper around fragmented, real-world capabilities to make them simpler and cheaper. But what if governments approached their own physical assets in a platform way?

Most governments operate some kind of public-facing offices – places like tax offices or labour exchanges. Like many digital services, these only tend to offer the services related to the part of government that owns them: you can’t get help filling out a passport application at a tax office.

What if local offices were seen as a shared capability for any government service that needs to talk to people face-to-face?

GOV.UK, Govt.nz, Gob.mx and other government websites have been designed so users don’t need a mental model of how government works to use them. Could the same become true of people’s face-to-face experiences of government?

* Thanks to Paul Fawkesley for the health service discovery example

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The Project on Digital Era Government at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center explores the relationship between digital technology and governance as they relate to digital government services

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