Introducing Government as a Platform

How the next phase in digital transformation will improve citizen services.

This article is the first in a series that examines case studies and model architecture for GaaP (government as a platform).

Governments around the world are facing competitive pressures and expectations from their constituents that are prompting them to innovate and dissolve age-old structures. Many governments have introduced a digital strategy in which at least one of the goals is aimed at bringing their organizations closer to citizens and businesses.

To achieve this, ideally IT and data in government would not be constrained by the different functional towers that make up the organization, as is often the case. They would not be constrained by complex, monolithic application design philosophies and lengthy implementation cycles, nor would development be constrained by the assumption that all activity has to be executed by the government itself.

Instead, applications would be created rapidly and cheaply, and modules would be shared as reusable blocks of code and integrated data. It would be relatively straightforward to integrate data from multiple departments to enable a focus on the complex needs of, say, a single parent who is diabetic and a student. Delivery would be facilitated in the manner best required, or preferred, by the citizen. Third parties would also be able to access these modules of code and data to build higher value government services that multiple agencies would then buy into. The code would run on a cloud infrastructure that maximizes the efficiency in which processing resources are used.

GaaP an organized set of ideas and principles that allows organizations to approach these ideals. It allows governments to institute more efficient sharing of IT resources as well as unlock data and functionality via application programming interfaces to allow third parties to build higher value citizen services. In doing so, security plays a crucial role protecting the privacy of constituents and enterprise assets.

We see increasingly well-established examples of GaaP services in many parts of the world. The notion has significantly influenced strategic thinking in the UK, Australia, Denmark, Canada and Singapore. In particular, it has evolved in a deliberate way in the UK’s Government Data Services, building on the Blairite notion of “joined up government”; in Australia’s e-government strategy and its myGov program; and as a significant influencer in Singapore’s entire approach to building its “smarter nation” infrastructure.

Collaborative Government

GaaP assumes a transformational shift in efficiency, effectiveness and transparency, in which agencies move toward a collaborative government and away from today’s siloed approach. That collaboration may be among agencies, but also with other entities (nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, citizens, etc.).

GaaP’s focus on collaboration enables public agencies to move away from their traditional towered approach to IT and increasingly make use of shared and composable services offered by a common – usually a virtualized, cloud-enabled – platform. This leads to more efficient use of development resources, platforms and IT support. We are seeing examples of this already with a group of townships in New York state and also with two large Spanish cities that are embarking on this approach.

While efficient resource and service sharing is central to the idea of GaaP, it is not sufficient. The idea is that GaaP must allow app developers, irrespective of whether they are citizens, private organizations or other public agencies, to develop new value-added services using published government data and APIs. In this sense, the platform becomes a connecting layer between public agencies’ systems and data on the one hand, and private citizens, organizations and other public agencies on the other.

In its most fundamental form, GaaP is able to:

  • Consume data and government services from existing departmental systems.
  • Consume syndicated services from platform-as-a-service or software-as-a-service providers in the public marketplace.
  • Securely unlock these data and services and allow third parties –citizens, private organizations or other agencies – to combine services and data into higher-order services or more citizen-centric or business-centric services.

It is the openness, the secure interoperability, and the ability to compose new services on the basis of existing services and data that define the nature of the platform.

The Challenges

At one time, the challenge of creating a GaaP structure would have been technology: Today, it is governance. Public agencies will frequently resist moving to a centralized platform because they fear it will introduce inflexibility that renders them unable to have their local and specific needs met. The higher up the value stack we move, the more pressing this concern becomes. While a group of semi-autonomous government agencies may come to terms with strict IT infrastructure and networking standards or security policies, for example, it will be difficult to agree on a common case management system.

While there are plenty of examples of the use of common business systems such as Belgium’s shared systems applications and products system for its ministries or California’s use of a single accounting, finance and procurement system for its departments, there still seem to be relatively few cases in which governments can agree on platform standards linking the business system and the technical infrastructure. Hence, GaaP must be designed and engineered in ways that unlock common data and services while allowing government agencies to build or adapt their own specific services on top of this core.

One option for GaaP is to move from legacy systems or an agency-managed cloud environment to a hybrid cloud environment. This combines public and private clouds to run services and process data at the most cost-effective location possible, given its confidentiality, the architecture required by legacy applications, and so on – while offering integrated security, development tooling, data definitions and so on. The platform in GaaP may thus extend across separate infrastructures to provide a seamless single environment for government agencies and their partners.

Many agencies will be keen to protect legacy investment in monolithic old-style applications. However, GaaP need not require completely re-creating existing capabilities. Legacy apps can be run in cloud environments, even if not in the multitenant fashion that has become the standard for born-on-the-cloud apps. And they can often be broken apart to create composable, reusable parts that can be services in and of themselves.

In the new digital economy, and in the light of cost constraints, more empowered citizens, and new pressures for service, governments must act to meet new requirements and expectations for connectivity, value added and citizen-centric or business-centric services. Just as importantly, they must be able to demonstrate more cost-efficient sharing of IT and communications resources. GaaP in its many manifestations can be a deliberate strategy, a deliberate policy, as it is in the UK, and a deliberate technical approach to unlocking value and allowing the ecosystem to play a greater role in how government deliver services to their constituents.

Peter Williams is chief technology officer for Big Green Innovations at IBM, where Jan Gravesen is client technical leader for California and Trinette Brownhill is information architect for Government Industry.