Government 2-0

Good news (and a caution) about "Government as a platform"

I wrote about my enthusiasm for the idea of "Government as a platform" in 2010 and again in 2013. It's (genuinely) great that Sir Jeremy Heywood - the recently-appointed head of the UK Civil Service - has just done the same in the post - More than just websites. He says...

We do not want to continue running government as a series of disjointed silos ... we are increasingly focusing on an idea called “Government as a platform“.

The idea of "Government as a Platform" is a huge thing that could fundamentally change the performance of Government. Necessarily, with this improvement would come an equally huge change in the shape of government (see the Gubbins of Government). There will be inertia: Sir Jeremy should not let the focus lapse.

Document standards and the rankling print presumption

My heart sinks when I get a document by email. My work being mostly with government, this happens quite a lot. It takes time to load the document software, time to orient myself to the layout and time to scroll through the meta-lettuce that often precedes the meat. (Many of these documents also look horrid, but that's a separate issue.)

When I get a link to something on the web, I don't get that feeling. There's a reasonable chance that the text will be readily readable, whatever device I am using. It maybe a page of nonsense, but it will take me only a second or two to judge.

Documents are, at heart, designed around the printed paper page. I've nothing against printing, printing is lovely, if I press a print button I definitely want a pretty and properly-paginated document; but only then. It's the print presumption that rankles. If I am reading on my phone, which I do a lot, I don't want the faff that comes with an A4 pdf.

Word-processors are typewriters. The operator is responsible for the both the authoring and the formatting. It seems that many of the features of the modern word-processor are to do with printing. Soon most text will be read on a screen, formatting for which is largely out of the hands of writers. We will need text authoring tools, perhaps like the beautiful (and £6) IAWriter that I am using to write this: most of us just won't need word-processors.

I was encouraged to read Digital Strategy as a website, rather than on one about how a government policy was designed first as a website rather than a document. It was drafted in plain text, agreed using the collaboration features of Google Docs, stored on Github (a cloud repository for managing software) and published on No Word or PDF. Yes please.

There are better ways to collaborate on text. As tools like wikis become mainstream, the day of sending round a document for others to revise or comment on must surely be done. Having seen a wiki make a significant difference to ways of working in one government department, I am convinced that the benefits of having a text with all of its versions and all of the conversation about it in one place are huge.

Maybe that one place could even be a single wiki/google docs/github-like repository for the whole of government? The awkward and expensive problem of document and records management would look quite different (and possibly even soluble). There are issues to do with security, FOI and that; but these need dealing with, not working around - even if it means changing the law. It is time to move from circulating documents to visiting texts.

As I write, I am conscious that thousands of government folk, in offices across the nation, are firing up Word ready for another day of document production. This is a super-tanker that will be hard to turn. We must take every opportunity to change the mindset and - the point of this post - there is a good one now...

The government is currently consulting on standards for future formats of electronic documents. The consultation is in two parts: viewing and collaborating on documents. The main issue is about Microsoft's dominant position in the provision of office software (see Simon Wardley's post Cloud Standards and Governments that brilliantly explains the issues).

I feel uncomfortable that the requirement in the consultation is expressed in terms of documents:

"Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing editable documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents."

There is certainly an immediate, pressing need to define (open) standards for documents; but, in this consultation, I think it would help to replace the word 'document' with 'information'. There is a discontinuous change at hand and it is important to recognise that the future will not be the same as the past. For instance, if teleporting looked possible in the next twenty years, the London runway and the HS2 debates would be quite different ones. And I do think that the information tools becoming available now are potentially as revolutionary.

Our mental model for handling textual information is based on the printed paper created by a typewriter, distributed by post and kept in a folder. It got us over the introduction of personal computing but it's time we moved on.

[See this post on Github]

There is a summary of the reaction to this post on Storify

Video - The future of local government services

A new video... The future of local government services

It was made with Anthony Kemp of London Borough of Hounslow and Mark Thompson of Methods to support an event - called "#HashHounslow" - which was a discussion between local and central government managers about shifting to more customer-centric services using cloud technologies. See the Computer Weekly write-up.


Right! Here we go: 4 minutes on future of local government services

Meet Martin Gaffer, Chief Executive, Citytown Council.

He and his team have been jolly busy lately. “Gosh we’ve been jolly busy lately”, says Martin

And they have been. Councils have been working hard to improve services. But this is a slog. Technology is a big part of the problem and frankly the council piggy bank has been taking a bit of a pasting.

I’ll explain Here is Citytown Council Delivering services to local people It’s one of hundreds in the country All doing the same kinds of things

Look inside Here’s are Citytown’s major services Housing, Children, Adults, Environment, Public Health

Let’s wind back to Environment... It is itself a collection of services, say: Development, Waste, Parks, Cleaning

In one way or another these all depend on technology Usually separate, proprietary technologies that are not very flexible and not easy to join up.

Looking at just one of these services. It’s made up of components... doing very similar things to the components of the other services. Things like Case Management, Mapping, Addresses, Payments and so on.

Usually only a small part is specific to the council’s own way of doing things.

Look at it all together. There’s quite a lot of costly stuff that could be more effective.

Now, Martin’s been thinking. Here’s a picture of Martin thinking.

What if were possible somehow to group the common tasks together. Putting all the red bits - lets say case management - one technology. Then the blue stuff - maybe mapping. Similarly with the green bits and the yellow bits.

Not only that, what if it were possible to group these, not just across a single council’s services but across all councils.

And perhaps we could find ways to put those specific, unique bits of the councils service together too.

So, this is where Martin’s Head of IT comes in. Meet Steve Techyman. Yes he does look a bit potty, but he knows his stuff; and he’s got good ideas.

“I think I know how to do this”, says Steve

And I think he’s right. It’s now becoming possible to access computing capabilities over the internet and to knit them together to create better services without many of the restrictions of traditional technology.

“Cloud”, shouts Steve

Which is quite a popular thing to shout nowadays. Many technology companies are getting involved. All of the big ones. lots of medium-sized ones and gazillions of small ones.

Together providing a rainbow of capabilities and funky new ways of doing things. At - much - lower - cost, than now.

Councils can package together whatever combination of these technologies they need Steve cos he’s a tech bloke, gives this a name - “platform”.

Whatever, the good thing is - this could make a huge difference for residents..

Here’s a Cynthia a Citytown resident.

Using Steve’s platform thingy the council can knit her just the services she needs

And knit different services for Cynthia’s son Cyril And also for Cyril’s mate Aziz And Aziz’s cousin Issi And Issi’s friend Lizzy And perhaps even knit a bobble hat for Steve

And there’s another thing... says Steve

This will change what council staff do. Because they will be less burdened with running the council machine and gluing its non-joined up bits together, they will be able to focus more on providing vital people-facing services that machines just can’t.

And there’s another another-thing... says Steve

This doesn’t have to be restricted to the council - It will be possible to knit in other services like... Health, Police, Charities, and Third Sector organisations

So… ...Councils all over the country could turn from deliverers of a standard set of services for all residents to providers of exactly what each resident needs.

All this enabled by new technology platforms made from bits of cloud.

OK. Hands up. All this does mean big changes in technology and in ways of working; and it certainly won’t happen overnight. But there are big prizes...

Better, more responsive, services, more openness, people more connected, increased growth, maybe even improved democracy.

Which is nice... Martin is showing signs of making friends with his piggbank. And steve’s so chuffed... he’s phoned his Mum

And that… as they say it

Video - How new technology will change the mechanics of government services

Lately, I have had some blank looks from Mrs Foden when I have been talking about my work, particularly about how new technology ('cloud' computing et al) will alter the workings of government. I thought I'd have a shot, with the able help of John McCubbin, at a simple explanation in this video... How new technology will change the mechanics of government services (in plainish English)

There was a positive reaction to it, including...

See other reactions from folk like Mike Bracken, Liam Maxwell in this Storify.

Using this video

You are free use this video and its content according to the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. If you feel you might want to go beyond these terms then please do get in touch.

In attributing the work you must make it plain that the ideas and rights belong to me - Mark Foden. Where material based on the ideas in the video is displayed on a website you must provide a plainly and continuously visible link to this page. Where it is presented in media - such as videos, images or slide presentations - the text "Mark Foden -" must be plainly and continuously visible.

Not a condition but if you do use this material I would really appreciate it if you let me know how it has been useful to you.

The critical importance of 'Government as a Platform'

The chap in this video is Tim O'Reilly. I was at this talk (3 years ago). It changed how I think and how I viewed the future of my work. I remember at the time being frustrated by the complexity of changing stuff in Government; and felt the lack of a cogent model for doing things differently. O'Reilly's ideas of Government as a Platform filled the vacuum. I wrote about it with boyish excitement at the time.

It's utterly brilliant this thinking (expressed pretty much in O'Reilly's terms) is finding its way into UK Government. See the Government as a Platform section of the new Government Service Design Manual. Here's the intro...

The government is implementing a platform-based operating model. Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, amongst many others, have all built their success on the back of platforms. They have developed a core technology infrastructure that others have then built upon, driving the success of the platform and meeting far more users’ needs than the original provider could have done on their own.

This is such an important idea. But, although enabled by IT, it is not an IT thing.

It is a way of thinking. A new doctrine.

It offers a way to handle the increasing, swamping complexity that confronts government; but it does mean government not doing everything itself and, crucially, not controlling everything. It means a change of mindset. It means senior folk, traditionally far removed from IT, understanding the new possibilities and fundamentally reframing their approach to the delivery of the services they are responsible for. They should watch this video.

Afternote - October 2014 The head of the UK Civil Service has supported Government as a Platform - see Good news (and a caution) about “Government as a platform”.

A very good thing...

I was asked recently what I thought about the new Inside Government section of the almost new website.  I wrote this:

Ah! Well...

I love the way it looks. I love that the content is written in plain English that I can read quickly and understand readily. I love that the pages look smart and that huge care has been taken about the layout and small things like the choice of typefaces. I think it is great that the content displays as well on mobile devices as it does on screen. I think it's brilliant that the look and feel will be consistent whichever department provides the content. I love the style. It beams confidence. It makes me think about Government differently.

I love the way that the Government Digital Service (GDS) have gone about the job. Their design principles are marvellous. It's great that they have started with a small amount of content, that they will be adding more soon, and that they are geared up to improve what they have done based on the feedback they get. It's inspiringly bold to put an indicator of how they are doing at the top of the pages (even though it only shows 2 out of 24 at the moment). It's wonderful that they have used open source software and any additional code they have written themselves has been shared for anyone to use. I love that they have already written twelve public blog posts about what they are doing and that these were authored by eight different members of the team; it's heartening that these people so obviously take a real pride in what they are doing.

And I love the reaction. It's wonderful that people like Tim O'Reilly (whom I respect hugely and who has no reason on earth to say things he doesn't mean) have been so positive about this and the other things that GDS are doing.

GDS have (genuinely) thought big, started small and moved fast. It's a completely classy job. They are showing the way.

We should follow.

'nuff said.