Playbook: Government as a Platform

FEBRUARY 11, 2020

In this white paper Richard Pope, Senior Fellow at the Government Platform Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a member of the founding team at the UK Government Digital Service, outlines how Government as a Platform holds out the promise of radically better services for the public. Pope discusses how this platform digitization will make government simpler and faster for civil servants and politicians, the private sector and non-profits, and the public. Read the introduction below, and click here to read the full white paper.

If you walked into a government office, anywhere on the planet in the 20th Century, you would probably have found three things: a records department managing paper files, index cards or microfiche; administrative staff processing and validating information, either in person over-the-counter or in back-offices, executing the rules set out in different government policies; finally, you’d find forms. Lots and lots of forms.

On the outside of the building, you’d find a sign that contains a word like “driving,” “passport” or “tax.” That’s because most government departments were, and still are, thematically organized, with responsibility for everything from the top to the bottom of an area of government.

As governments began to put more of their services online, this was the world they digitized. So, today, if you were to look at the technology stack of a typical government agency—let’s say a motoring agency with responsibility for issuing driving and vehicle licences—you’d see something like this:

• A series of online transactions—apply for a driving licence, renew a licence, report a change of address—that would more or less map directly to the paper forms they replaced.

• There would be admin systems for things like managing payments or validating addresses—things that humans used to do manually, but these days are semi-automated. The business rules once written out in a policy document have been turned into code.

• Finally, there would be a series of databases—for our hypothetical driving agency, that might be a database of drivers and their cars, and some sort of case-management system for keeping track of applications. These databases have (mostly) replaced the records departments and paper files that once took over whole floors of government buildings.

This is a pattern that is replicated across government—the pattern repeated in different agencies and at different layers of government. So, if you were to look at land registration, social security, or tax departments, in central government or local government, you’d probably see a similar pattern.

You might be asking, why is this a problem? Surely making things work more efficiently is a good thing? There are several reasons why not.

When it comes to using data from one part of government in another part of government—maybe someone wants to be able to prove they own a car to the tax office—the prevailing practice is what is referred to euphemistically as “data sharing.” It’s referred to as “sharing,” but it’s actually closer to copying-and-pasting. Records in databases are not like pieces of paper in a file, so “data sharing” often means multiple copies of the same data end up scattered across government, which then has implications for accuracy, security and privacy.

As well as duplication of data there is duplication of effort too. Remember, our hypothetical driving agency? It probably has a payment processing system so people could pay for their driving licences. But other agencies also need to process payments, so public money ends up being spent on the multiple systems, all doing the same thing. The same is true for other commons tasks too, things like messaging or printing.

Thirdly (and most important), is the impact on the design of services that the public have to use. In computer science, there’s an adage called “Conway’s law.” It is named after computer programmer Melvin Conway, and it says that: organizations which design systems . . . are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Government is this idea writ large—with services designed around the organizational structure of government rather than the needs of people. This means a family looking to move house, someone recovering from an illness or someone looking to start a company, will have to deal separately with many government agencies. Some people fall through the gaps, and you have to ask: what that does to those people’s trust in the state?

Continue reading here.