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Government as a platform for the rest of us

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Digital Service Platforms

Big screen at a Sprint event reading 'Better, smarter public services"

So far we’ve talked about the technology that makes Government as a Platform work, and the technical benefits it brings, but less about the more tangible benefits for everyone else in government. For policy people, for front line staff, for service managers, all the way up to permanent secretaries and ministers. What does Government as a Platform mean for them? And what does it mean for the rest of us?

Here's what it means:

Services will be quicker, easier, and cheaper to create

Platforms exist to solve problems common to all or many government departments. They are interconnected components of a larger system.

With these shared components doing all the hard work behind the scenes, service teams can focus solely on building what their service needs to do, and don’t have to worry about procuring a whole stack of stuff alongside it.

If your new service requires some sort of payment to government from users, you could plug it into a cross-government payments platform rather than procuring some bespoke payments system just for your service (which would take much longer and cost a great deal more).

Another example: if you want to notify your service’s users that something’s happened (such as, “We’ve received your application” or “We got your payment” or “Your licence has been issued”), you could plug into a status notifications platform which will make it easier to send them emails or texts. No need to build your own bespoke notifications system, which again, would take longer and cost more.

Another component is data. Right now, government data is stored in many different ways, frequently duplicated and hard to keep up-to-date. All those problems make it hard to put to good use. We have bad data, not good data.

When we start building platforms, data becomes another shared component in the system. Standards ensure it is accessible by other components. It is maintained and curated by departmental teams who understand it best. Users are given control over their personal data, so they can choose which services can see it and when.

Not all the components are technology components. For example, we’ve put together design patterns and a development toolkit, which distilled months and months of user research into a set of interaction and design patterns that we know work well with a diverse range of users. This is often the bit that people building services say is most helpful for them when they want to get started quickly.

In a world of platforms, you find out what users need earlier in the process, so you know sooner whether or not you’re building the right thing.

When it's so simple to create services, you can create them as experiments. They can be almost disposable.

Platforms give us a digital infrastructure to build services on: an ecosystem of components that’s not closed and locked away inside a proprietary stack of technology and processes, but based on standards and open to all. The entire public sector can use it. So can third parties. Which brings us to the next thing.

Platforms stimulate markets, and markets drive innovation

Government’s current siloed approach stifles innovation, and leads to various problems such as:

  • rent-seeking behaviour from incumbent suppliers
  • new suppliers being excluded, even if they have newer, more innovative ideas
  • encouraging proprietary activity and technology

If we create platforms based on open standards and interoperability, we automatically create competition and drive innovation. That means more providers and lower costs.

We can boost a nascent market of providers, building upon our open services - a market that has, until now, been held back by the contracts that locked us into those closed, proprietary systems.

Companies, charities, clubs and co-ops can use the same infrastructure to set up additional services that government can't justify, or can't afford.

For example: look at GOV.UK Verify, which is stimulating the identity services market. It is setting standards, aggregating demand across government and government services, building a whole new market for identity services in the UK. New identity services are springing up and moving from “clever idea” to “commercial product” very quickly.

Programme Director Janet Hughes explains it brilliantly in the presentation she gave recently at the Follow the Entrepreneur conference: without that market influence, if government had tried to procure a solution a few years ago, the specification would already be hopelessly out of date. The market brings innovation, and innovation brings better identity services.

Services can change as policy and circumstances change

Services built on platforms are much more flexible.

Change happens: government policy, global and local politics, governments themselves, all of it changes over time. Services built the old way struggle to adapt, or even change at all. Trapped in the structure that was imposed on them from the beginning, service delivery teams invent clever workarounds. Over time, things get messy.

Built on platforms, that no longer applies. Services are separated from the things that make them work (things like data and technology). Every service rests upon an ecosystem of components that can be snapped together or pulled apart whenever needed.

So when policy changes, or when circumstances force change to happen, it can. Quickly, without fuss. Perhaps some of the components a service is built on might need to be replaced - which isn’t a problem when you’re using platforms. Everything’s built on standards and designed to interconnect. You swap out the old and snap in the new. Users don’t need to notice, or even be told (unless the service offered to them is changing).

Services are closer to policy intent

This last thing is the inevitable consequence of the previous ones.

Because it’s quicker and cheaper to build new services, and because they’re flexible and easy to change, you can iterate your way towards the right thing: not just the right thing for users, but the right thing that meets policy intent. The right thing for government. You can prototype services. You can prototype policy itself, running quick, cheap trials before rolling out further. New services from companies, charities and other third parties become possible, meeting user needs that government cannot meet.

The result? We get more services, we get better services, and for less money than before.

That’s what Government as a Platform means. That’s why it matters.

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  1. Comment by Peter Crombecq posted on

    The city of Antwerp faces the same problems/needs as those mentioned in your earlier blog post “Building a platform to host digital services”. What are we doing to prevent building the same services over and over again?
    You can read this in our blog post “Antwerp City Platform as a Service: co-creation & innovation” (
    It involves indeed a Platform as a Service. In our case, the Antwerp City Platform as a Service (or ACPaaS) which is pretty much the same concept as the one described above.
    We build ACPaaS partially with startups, and this is, in our experience, close to disruptive.
    The cooperation with startups grows to a very inspirational, innovative and collaborative ecosystem where everybody wins: citizens, students, business, visitors, co-workers, startups and the government.
    Conclusive, in our experience, the building of a Government Platform as a Service makes sense ;-).

  2. Comment by Digital KoolAid posted on

    Quicker (than what), easier (than what) and cheaper (than what)? All comparative / relative terms, and no metrics? The concept of “interconnected components of a larger system” has been rejected. A “cross-government payments platform” doesn’t exist. Who says that a “bespoke payments system just for your service" will take much longer and cost a great deal more? Who measured the alternatives? Nobody is who. It’s a claim and nothing more (other than a hope).

    Centralisation is out. Devolution is in. There isn’t a “status notifications platform which will make it easier to send them emails or texts”. There’s that word again. Easier than what?

    Please, what’s the difference between “bad data” and “good data”. It cleans up its bedroom? What is the meaning of “put to good use”? What use is seen to be “good”? By whom?

    This statement was complete fantasy “Platforms stimulate markets, and markets drive innovation”. Nobody who knows about either platforms or markets would agree.

    Programme Director Janet Hughes didn’t explain it “brilliantly” in the presentation she gave recently at the Follow the Entrepreneur conference. She made a number of claims, without clarity, and has not clarified herself since. She said there will be a “market” in identity. That may cause you to be concerned, that your identity is a thing to be traded in a market. Janet is not a recognised authority on the action and behaviour of markets, nor does the Crown generally create markets. This does not qualify as “brilliant”.

    Yes, change does happen: and services built the old way have adapted continuously. It takes work. Who says no work is needed and everything is disposable? When was this ever true? Adapting to change takes actual work. Work is a constant.

    The final paragraph …. “Because it’s quicker and cheaper …” is the new standard in unjustified, unmeasured, hope-based, non-theory. It has a nice, feel-good dimension and unquestioned appeal. But it is baseless. It is less than baseless in fact, and is not supported by any experience either in the UK or elsewhere. Rational decision makers will recognise it for what it is.

    Government as a Platform has not made its case, and is not enjoying wide support.

  3. Comment by Chris posted on

    So how does all this "snapping together" and "pulling apart" of components work? This makes it sound as easy as drag and drop? I'd assume there's time-consuming programming, testing, etc. work to do in reality though? Or is the technology that advanced? We can change things "Quickly, without fuss". How quick is quickly (from idea to users "not noticing that it has changed"?)

    • Replies to Chris>

      Comment by David Illsely posted on

      Hi Chris. We're still expecting to involve technical specialists (developers and testers) when building services, but now it'll be faster and cheaper. We're designing the components to be easily testable, and making them easy for teams building services to test with. We're also focussed on producing great documentation, again ensuring that they are quick and easy to consume.

      In this way we will be able to deliver changes to services faster than we would have done previously as the interfaces between components and their dependencies are more clearly defined. It’ll also improve over time as we iterate and improve the platforms and technologies in use.

  4. Comment by Steve Coombes posted on

    Would you be able to share the design patterns and development toolkit?