Local Government as a Platform — beyond “delivering services digitally”

Between 2014–15 the “Government as a Platform” (GaaP) concept — what it is and how we create it — was the subject of a lot of Twitter traffic and generated blog posts from a number of people in the local government digital community. At the time I felt there was a missing dimension to the debate, specifically in the Local Government space which has been my professional world as Chief Enterprise Architect and then Head of Digital Transformation for Bristol until October 2017.

Local Government as a Platform — Connecting Services for Citizens

Creating a Platform Business Model in Local Government

Now that I’ve left Bristol, joining Perform Green as their Chief Innovation and Research Officer, on reflection it seems to me that the debate has moved on very little in the past two years. Therefore it feels like a good time to look back at where the discussion around Local Government as a Platform started and in the coming weeks to look at what it would take to create a platform business model in local government. I’m also going to be exploring the related topics of smart society, digital transformation and the local government technology market in a series of blog posts.

Engaged & Critical Thinkers Bringing New Ideas

Everything I share in this post has been shared with me by someone else, I’ve been lucky to have a number of clear sighted, engaged and critical thinkers to work with, who’ve pointed me to a variety of new ideas.

Three of the best articulations of GaaP in 2015 came from blog posts. The first was from Dave Briggs, emerging from his practical experiences leading Adur & Worthing council’s Digital and Design service — “What I’m talking about when I’m talking about Government as a Platform“.

The second is referenced by Dave — Sean Tubbs’ post “Platform is a Business Model. Not a Tech Stack“. Both of these posts draw strongly on Mark Thompson’s articulation of digital government — summarised well in his Computerweekly article “Where next for UK government as a platform and GDS?

The thing that all of them get totally right shouts out to us from the title of Sean’s post — Platform is a Business Model. I won’t repeat the details of their arguments, but it’s worth highlighting a few statements.

Dave Briggs says:

“Digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.”

and points out that platform business models use the internet

“to directly connect people with needs, with those who can meet those needs”

This is the most important element of the platform business model
 — the role of local government changes from directly providing services, and directly commissioning services to providing ways for demand to be aggregated and made visible to the market, and ways for the market to develop and provide services to people.

Most of the posts about GaaP take us to the brink of this point, but then pull back. For instance Sean Tubbs says:

“So, put simply, ‘platform’ is a business model that uses the infrastructure of the internet to supply products or services to their customers…
…Government is primarily a supplier of value-add services to the ever growing demand of the citizens of the UK…
…Government has an opportunity to transform itself to a digital business model by supplying services to citizens via a standardised common platform.”

Government Cannot Just be a Service Provider

For me, this misses the point, the “why” of the Government as a Platform debate. Drivers from two directions (at least) mean that government cannot and must not continue to conceive of itself purely as a service provider.

From one direction, we simply cannot afford to operate this way any more — social and economic needs are too complex to be resolved by a simple “citizen demand” met by “government service” equation within the scope of available public sector budgets. As Tim O’Reilly put it way back in 2009, we have to get away from “government as a vending machine”.

Let’s Harness the Best

A new political settlement is needed that recognises what we have now does not work, and harnesses the best parts of government, business and civil society.

Driving towards that from another direction, people’s expectations of the way that they relate to organisations have been reshaped by their experiences over the past couple of decades. In the world of consumer goods and services people expect to be able to look at reviews created by other service users who have rated and shared rich narratives about their experience (described by some as the move from the age of deference to the age of reference)

  • they expect to be able to configure products and services to fit their needs
  • they expect choice, convenience and speed of delivery
  • and throughout all of the experience they expect transparency — to see what is happening and when.

But above and beyond these two forces there’s an even more important point rooted in the question “what is local government (and government generally) for?”

What is our purpose?

Yes, we provide services, and we also shape markets. But why? — so that our citizens and places can determine for themselves what value is. The platform is a way of tapping into existing conversations so that how people really think and feel about their local area can surface; so that these views and feelings can be discussed and new ideas for improvement put forward; and so that the best of these ideas can be selected, prototyped and implemented by whoever is best placed to do it (hardly ever the council).

In other words, the platform helps citizens co-define, co-create, and co-ordinate civic value.

Democracy does this once every 4 years, but now we need to do it every 4 minutes.

So Local Government’s role in this purpose should be as a ‘trusted’ organisation, which has similarities to platform businesses like Amazon, but is also quite different in its culpability and responsibility. If Amazon, Uber or Facebook fail to deliver, the consequences are relatively small. If care, education and housing services fail, the consequences are life-changing or even life-threatening.

Within this context, of course it’s true that the Internet and digital technologies provide a significantly different infrastructure for government in comparison to the information systems and technologies employed to automate back-office processes for the past 50 years. We see how companies like Uber, Facebook and Amazon have used these new technologies to change the game in contrast to their non-digital predecessors.

But if you’re familiar with the Business Model Canvas you’ll know that “key resources” is just one of the 9 areas for attention when you are mapping how an organisation “creates, delivers and captures value” (And if you’re familiar with Tom Grave’s Enterprise Canvas you’ll know that there are more dimensions that need to be considered if you want to make sense of the overall context in which an organisation operates — the shared enterprise which determines what value actually is.)

Focus on the Value Proposition

So my point is that if discussions of Government as a Platform always immediately plunge into details about the technology, we are fundamentally ignoring 80% of the important aspects of a new business model. In particular we should focus on the significant differences in the value propositions and key activities of a platform organisation from those of a traditional service delivery organisation.

That was my contention in 2015, and it’s somewhat disappointing to note that in 2017 the published articles about Government as a Platform are still repeating some of the mistakes. Especially because I know that there has been a lot of developed thinking and practice since then. So I’m going to follow this with a series of posts on Local Government as a Platform, to share this work with the hope that it helps colleagues working to transform the public sector — and especially local public services.

Read more from Gavin:

From Smart Cities to Smart Societies — The Story so Far

Can We Still Talk about Digital Transformation?


Gavin is part of a team of specialists and experts at Perform Green, working on world leading projects in the Smart Society space. Find out more at Perform Green.