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