Project update — April 2019
My name is Richard Pope and I’m a senior fellow at digitalHKS. digitalHKS is focused on understanding the relationship between digital technology, data, and rights as it relates to the public interest. It’s based at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The focus of my work is ‘digital platforms in government’ aka Government as a Platform. The aims of the work are:
- Give digital service units resources to help them build good platforms
- Test ways of explaining the value and implications of digital platforms to politicians and policymakers
- Identify the important parts of platform government and develop a common language for talking about it
- Start a conversation about the institutional, societal and democratic implications of digital platforms in government and beyond
I’ve interviewed about 35 people since September, including people from digital service groups (including Argentina, Canada , Estonia, Germany, India, Peru, Singapore, UK and the USA); people working on platforms in the private sector (Google Android, Amazon, Akamai and others); and people working at next-generation government suppliers.
The aim of those interviews was to gather material for the government platforms playbook, which will include examples from those interviews (I’ll be getting back in touch with interviewees soon for consent to use particular examples).
I’ve also published one interview transcript in full: a chat with Will Myddelton, who worked on the UK Government as a Platform programme as the lead user researcher.
To do: publish more transcripts; more interviews focused on data infrastructure; add examples to playbook.
The Government Platforms Playbook will provide some guidance for people working in government to help them think about the development of platforms. So far, I’ve published drafts of two sections:
(Caveat: these early drafts!)
You can see the proposed table of contents here. (Although I think that is likely to change somewhat). I’ve been using the Electronic Book Works tool to publish, so eventually, it will be available as a website, PDF and various ebook formats.
To do: test draft chapters and the table of contents with users (suggestions welcome for organizations to test with); write the rest of the sections!
Government as a Platform, the hard problems
We know a bit about how to develop platforms from the private sector. But what, if anything, is unique about the government context? Which bits are hard for technical reasons, and which bits are just plain hard? I’ve started writing a series of seven articles to explore these questions.
To do: write the rest of the articles!; publish as an ebook?
Other long-form writing
In addition to the playbook, I’ve been writing longer form pieces on the subject of platforms:
- Data-sharing in government: why it’s time for a new social contract
- Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government
- Digital proofs
- Platforms for government? Platforms for society?
- Digital service standards and platforms
- There will also be an article in the Kennedy School Review co-authored with David Eaves and Ben McGuire being published soon.
Next steps: 3 x more articles to come; look for external publications with appropriate audiences to write for.
Definitions and shared language
I’ve arrived at the following as the working definition of government as a platform:
Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared components, open APIs, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that public servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.
The aim was to arrive at a definition that can help digital service units who are beginning to think about platforms to make better decisions. Does this project we are starting really fit as part of government as a platform?”, “Is that smart-city-blockchain-widget Consultancy X is trying to sell really going to help?” or “how should we measure the impact of this work?”. etc.
I had hoped to publish some more definitions and diagrams alongside this, but didn’t quite manage to get around to it before sending this. When they are ready, they will appear here.
This is an emerging area, so I started the Platform Land newsletter as a way to document what’s happening around the world. Every two weeks, it lists key developments, links to relevant projects and summarises related articles and academic papers.
So far it has just over 300 readers, and (based on the people who have been in touch) includes a good mix of senior policy people and digital government practitioners from both the public and the private sector. People have said nice things about it, including:
- “Helping to fill that gap [in policy and technology choices around digital identity and infrastructure], as Platform Land is doing, is a serious global public service”
- “Oh wow the PlatformLand newsletter is terrific and basically unique.”
You can see the archives here.
To do: keep going; grow readership; write-up workflow.
To understand a landscape it’s useful to have a map. In an effort to understand what different governments are doing, I’ve started curating lists of three types of things:
- Cross-government registers, shared components and open APIs
- Design systems and standards
- Service standards and other technical standards
The datasets are available under a Creative Commons Licence for others to use and are published on GitHub so other people can contribute. So far there have been contributions from the UK’s Government Digital Service and Italy’s Team Per La Transformazione Digitale.
In the long-run, I think there’s value for government digital teams, and for academics, to compare approaches in different countries. e.g. I used the list of service standards to create a custom search engine, so you can see what different countries say about things like open source. And that was really useful in writing this article about digital service standards and platforms.
To do: add more data (hopefully this will become the focus of a research assistant); create country-based case studies.
Presentations and teaching
I’ve done 5 presentations, broadly on the subject of platforms, at Harvard to different audiences. These have included the Civic Analytics Network (a national peer network of urban Chief Data Officers) and the Social Innovation and Change Initiative (which was a great discussion with Chris Kuang).
In addition, I’ve taught a class as part of David Eaves’ Digital Service Units course.
Finally, I’ve published reading lists for key subject areas that relate to platforms. Students from India and Ukraine have been in touch to say they are useful.
To do: publish a write up of some of the talks; present at the UK government API conference; add more reading lists.