Gov­ern­ments must in­no­vate

They can use dig­i­tal plat­forms, par­tic­u­larly pro­vided by Google, Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft, but also so­cial me­dia

African Independent - - BUSINESS - HE­LEN MAR­GETTS

GOV­ERN­MENTS need to re­claim their past role as in­no­va­tor. It is of­ten claimed that gov­ern­ment is un­able to in­no­vate; with­out profit sur­ro­gates, pub­lic of­fi­cials have no in­cen­tive to do so. This view was fu­elled in the 1980s, which sparked two decades of an­tipa­thy to the state.

But when you look at the his­tory of dig­i­tal gov­ern­ment, gov­ern­ments in the 1960s led the way in de­vel­op­ing com­puter tech­nol­ogy, digi­tis­ing their op­er­a­tions and cre­at­ing large-scale in­for­ma­tion sys­tems.

It was only in the 1980s that gov­ern­ments started to lag be­hind the cor­po­rate world in terms of in­no­vat­ing with dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.

And as Mar­i­anna Maz­zu­cato has shown in the En­tre­pre­neur­ial State, gov­ern­ments were be­hind many of the in­no­va­tions that un­der­pin to­day’s dig­i­tal so­ci­ety, from the in­ter­net to GPS to the iPhone.

We live in a “plat­form so­ci­ety”, where we spend an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of our time on dig­i­tal plat­forms, par­tic­u­larly pro­vided by Google, Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft, but also so­cial me­dia such as Face­book, Twit­ter and YouTube, shop­ping plat­forms such as Ama­zon and eBay, and newer plat­forms of the shar­ing econ­omy, in­clud­ing Uber and Airbnb.

This plat­form so­ci­ety also ex­erts a num­ber of pres­sures on gov­ern­ment to in­no­vate with dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy and data.

The most ob­vi­ous pres­sure for in­no­va­tion comes from the decade of aus­ter­ity and cuts that fol­lowed the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, push­ing gov­ern­ments to do “more for less” with tech­nol­ogy and to in­tro­duce “dig­i­tal by de­fault” pro­grammes rather than ex­pen­sive mul­ti­chan­nel ap­proaches.

A dig­i­tal so­ci­ety means that reg­u­la­tion must also be dig­i­tal – taxis for ex­am­ple, are heav­ily reg­u­lated in most cities, but Uber’s data-driven plat­form poses a huge chal­lenge to ana­logue reg­u­la­tory mod­els.

Like­wise, ex­pe­ri­ence with other plat­forms means that dig­i­tal cit­i­zens have new ex­pec­ta­tions of gov­ern­ment in terms of be­ing able to in­ter­act dig­i­tally; they do not ex­pect to write a cheque or fill out a form (al­though they of­ten have to), and they may not even ex­pect to be able to call gov­ern­ment ei­ther (as they do not think of call­ing Ama­zon).

Fi­nally, gov­ern­ment needs to in­no­vate around the new chal­lenges that the plat­form so­ci­ety in­tro­duces to the pro­vi­sion of pub­lic goods such as se­cu­rity and pub­lic health.

Cy­ber­crime and on­line ex­trem­ism and rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, for ex­am­ple, are forc­ing se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices to rein­vent them­selves.

Gov­ern­ment has to de­velop as a plat­form it­self, as pro­posed by the US writer Tim O’Reilly in his Gov­ern­ment as a Plat­form (Gaap) model. He ar­gues if you look at the his­tory of the com­puter in­dus­try, the in­no­va­tions that de­fine each era are frame­works that en­abled a whole ecosys­tem of par­tic­i­pa­tion, from the per­sonal com­puter through the in­ter­net to the iPhone.

So gov­ern­ments should aim to be­come an open plat­form that al­lows peo­ple in­side and out­side gov­ern­ment to in­no­vate. He puts for­ward seven prin­ci­ples for plat­form think­ing in gov­ern­ment: open stan­dards, “keep­ing it sim­ple”, de­sign for par­tic­i­pa­tion, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, data min­ing, learn­ing from hack­ers and lead­ing by ex­am­ple.

One coun­try pur­su­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally the Gaap dream is the UK, so ex­plic­itly that the model was cited in the 2015 au­tumn spend­ing re­view by then chan­cel­lor of the ex­chequor, Ge­orge Os­borne, and a Gov­ern­ment as a Plat­form Chief has been ap­pointed in the Gov­ern­ment Dig­i­tal Ser­vice, the lead agency for dig­i­tal gov­ern­ment.

The ap­proach is to cre­ate a se­ries of build­ing blocks or plat­forms that can be slot­ted into the ser­vices of any agency – Ver­ify, a fed­er­ated iden­tity sys­tem; GOV.UK Pay, for mak­ing pay­ments to gov­ern­ment; and No­tify, so peo­ple know the sta­tus of their case or ap­pli­ca­tion.

He­len Mar­getts is di­rec­tor and pro­fes­sor, Ox­ford In­ter­net In­sti­tute, Univer­sity of Ox­ford

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