Government as a Platform

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.

PSNGB "Groovy Boots" video story

This is the story of the production of this video. Foden Grealy (under our Eggvids banner) produced the video for the PSNGB - the industry association for the Public Services Network. It explains in about two minutes what the PSN is and what the PSNGB is doing to make it successful.

Summary of what happened...

7 May - Neil Mellor - a director of PSNGB approached us. 8 May - Eggvid man Mark Hainge and I had a half-hour telephone discussion with Neil and Stuart Higgins - another PSNGB Director. We explained our approach (see pic below). 7 June - The four of us had a 3-hour flipchart session to work out what should be in the video. It was an excellent interactive session where we ended up with the bones of the story. 14 June - We produced a full-length rough & ready first version of the video, which Neil and Stuart provided feedback on. They liked the overall style and the way we put over the main messages; they also gave us a list of revisions to consider and some ideas about the humour (which is where the "groovy boots" came from). They also asked us if we could get the video ready for the PSN annual conference on 25 June. 21 June - We produced an improved version that was discussed by the board of PSNGB. It was approved with a few changes. 23 June - We produced the final version (after a couple of late-nighters). 25 June - The video was shown at the PSN Summit.

This production went smoothly. Neil and Stuart were great to work with (the reason it went smoothly) and were keen to participate - it felt like an interaction rather than a transaction. I'd say that it would be near-impossible to produce a video like this in a transactional way from a traditional written brief. The humour, always a potential sticking point, came easily with some super suggestions from the PSNGB folk.

I was at the first showing of the video at the PSN Summit yesterday. There was laugher, spontaneous applause and many positive comments.

We wish the PSNGB and the PSN huge success.

More info

More stuff about the video and its production.


We work iteratively. Here is a pic we used to explain our approach to Neil and Stuart...

Eggvids iterative way
Eggvids iterative way


This was the output of the flip-chart session. Scientific, this...

PSNGB video flip-chart
PSNGB video flip-chart


PSNGB We are the industry association for the Public Services Network

The GB bit originally meant Governing Body but we aren't one Instead, think of Growing Benefits, Government Betterment, General Blossoming, Any of those

Our members are companies supplying either the PSN, or the services delivered over it,

So, the PSN itself Public Services Network

It's a computer network. Think of it as a house-trained version of the Internet for the public sector.

Any organisation providing public services can connect to it.

It replaces a whole lot of terribly disparate network wherewithal from the past that made it very hard for people in government to do internetty things.

Most public sector organisations are on it now and are shifting their services across from existing networks like the GSI (God bless them and all who sailed in them).

Of course there's box ticking and IT faffing about involved but we are getting to the end of that.

The PSN will carry the services that existed before but the important thing is it's not just a replacement network, it is a jolly sturdy foundation that some people call a platform for building all sorts of completely new stuff . Like...

Organising public services around citizens by linking the operations of different departments Or... Enabling third parties to create new dead-funky services that no one has thought of yet Or... Making it possible for people in the public sector to use the latest technologies to work flexibly Hurrah!

And this totally new stuff will bring new ways of working, new communication, new policy, new support, new procurement, new structures, new management, new thoughts and new almost anything else you can think of

PSN can change the shape of government

Which brings us back to the PSNGB:

Yes, we'll do the usual industry association things: standards, technical palaver, all that helping suppliers to get their boxes ticked and their faffing faffed helping customers to get with the right suppliers

But we've got a bigger ambition. We want to do our bit to enable this change We want to connect people, spark ideas and make a genuine contribution to the reshaping of government

Right nuff said.

PSN, GB The industry association for the PSN... bringing Great Bounty and Glittering Breakthroughs So, fill your Groovy Boots.

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

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”.

Creating cultures in government that cope with complexity

Following on from thinking in a few recent posts about the emerging nature of change in government (and after inspiration and help from Noah Raford... Governments are facing new, game-changing complexity. They are dealing with increasingly pressing and diverse problems: from improving public services, to ensuring national security, to dealing with the global financial crisis. Each problem has its own specific set of issues; but now, in a world of mounting complexity, these issues interact and it is near-impossible to manage them separately. A focus on applying the right technical solution for each problem in isolation is unlikely to work. The real challenge is to develop cultures that will enable people in government to make sense of, and deal with, complex situations in appropriate, holistic ways.

The new challenges

The new challenges of government can be considered in three areas: Complexity, Culture and Community…


The challenges of government are not just getting more complicated; they are getting Complex. Complexity is different. In Complicated situations, cause-and-effect can be predicted: in Complex ones, because these situations are too new, too dynamic or too uncertain, it can’t.

Complicated problems can be solved through clever analysis and the use of existing practice. Whilst we will still have Complicated challenges (best dealt with in traditional ways) the bulk of critically important ones now facing Government are Complex and need different treatment.


Crucially, applying Complicated solutions to Complex challenges is likely to be unfruitful and possibly counter-productive. A different approach is needed if government is to thrive in the 21st Century.


In the past when things were just Complicated, we were able to hire experts to think our way to a solution. This doesn’t work when things are complex. Why?

Look at a stark example from the UK National Health Service. The UK Department of Health spent billions on an IT project to manage patient health records, which has now been abandoned…

"The Department of Health is not going to achieve its original aim of a fully integrated care records system across the NHS. Trying to create a one-size-fits-all system in the NHS was a massive risk and has proven to be unworkable.” Chair of UK Government Public Accounts Committee

Complexity was at the heart of the failure. The programme was too ambitious, requirements were too diverse, suppliers were too hard to manage, stakeholders were too unsupportive (and so on). The approach was essentially a top-down, analytic one: hire some smart people to work out the answer and then build a system to implement it. But Complex problems don’t need more expertise or better answers; they need a culture of dealing with complexity. When things are Complex, Government has to be flexible. It must be able to design and build systems whilst, at the same time, trying to understand and change them: perhaps like learning a musical instrument whist trying to make a living from playing it.

Culture is important. Government organisations need to be more responsive to their operating environments; they need to be more agile. Sub-units, that were previously separated for efficiency reasons, must interact spontaneously and not because they have been told to. Individuals at all levels must take more responsibility and their managers must enable (rather than control) them as they do that. Organisations must think and operate more as networks and less as hierarchies. All this means a significant change in behaviour: a change that will feel as uncomfortable as writing with the wrong hand. This new approach will not be brought about by altering structure or processes or technology.

These ideas mostly run against the grain of the way governments are structured and managed: behaviours, beliefs and ways of doing things would feel very different. On top of this, whilst Complexity is turning things upside down, the Complicated stuff hasn’t gone away either. Everything needs to be juggled at the same time: Government needs to grow new ways around old ones and everyone involved must understand why different situations need different approaches.

A new culture is needed.


The make-up and functioning of government communities also presents a significant challenge. To create a culture of dealing with complexity it is necessary to nurture a community of staff that appreciates how to deal with complexity. It is often difficult for government cultures that have grown up with strict rules and complicated procedures to make this shift. In IT, for example, working in a complex way can bring significant, unexpected change. This can create headaches for security teams, support services, policy people and administrators. These problems cannot be designed away, since they are required by the nature of the complex situation themselves. So it is crucial to involve those likely to be affected right from the beginning. The distinction is that when it’s Complicated you need to build teams to solve problems: when it’s Complex you need to grow communities to improve situations.

What to do?

Encouragingly there are plenty of smart and influential people involved with Government who understand these issues and are pioneering new solutions. Take a look at Tim O’Reilly talking about his vision of Government as a Platform. O’Reilly sees a need to develop open infrastructures – particularly IT ones – to enable individuals, companies and social enterprises to participate much more in government and so provide the innovation, diversity and energy needed to deal with Complex situations. Of course this is not going to be a binary flip: governments will need to develop these collaborative ways and have them co-exist with the more traditional ones.

This approach has perhaps three components: Experimentation, Collaboration and Openness …


To create something big and Complicated - like a new road system – then of course the right thing to do is turn to engineers and other professionals who do this kind of thing for a living. To do something big and Complex - like changing the way an organisation works - don’t do the same thing. There is too much uncertainty, too much dynamism and too much complexity. Instead, focus on the Small - lots and lots of fast, iterative Small. The more experiments, the better, as long as open and non-punitive feedback is encouraged as well.


The point is to succeed or fail fast, and often, and do it in small ways that don’t have consequences should things go wrong. This way we can learn and progress quickly. If we don’t, we are prone to missing opportunities and making big, expensive mistakes.


In Complex situations traditional means of coordination, through organisational hierarchies, are not responsive enough. Organisations need to be more spontaneous; when faced with a problem or an opportunity, people need to be able to respond themselves rather than wait for managers. This means people must have the facility both to identify the others they need to work with and then to coordinate that work effectively. Tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WordPress are transforming interaction and cooperation in our private lives: there is a huge opportunity to use similar tools within organisations to transform our work lives.

Incorporating social capabilities into work tools and creating the culture to use them effectively will take time but is critical to future success: see the recent McKinsey report The rise of the networked enterprise or the Forbes article Social Power – The coming corporate revolution. There is currently huge emphasis on creating tools to store and distribute information but, in dealing with Complexity, it is more important to connect People with People than it is to connect People with Information.


Complexity creates enormous and pressing demand for new capabilities. It will not be possible for government departments to provide everything everyone wants. It is therefore essential that they reach out to both their “customers” and their partners to help understand and deliver novel ways of doing things. To do this effectively there is a need for both new infrastructure and a new culture of outward looking, collaborative staff.

The iPhone is an example of this kind of thing. Apple provide a robust technology infrastructure and facilities for anyone with the skills to create applications for it – there are now nearly 500,000 iPhone apps that Apple could never have created themselves. The same approach could be taken in government to empower partner organisations, internal teams or even gifted amateurs amongst the staff to bring innovative ideas to life.

This thinking is developing in the UK. For example, some local councils are partnering with a social enterprise called Fix My Street - a service that allows citizens to report on problems like holes in the road, graffiti and illegal dumping of waste using a website and associated mobile applications. The initiative is reducing clean-up times and increasing satisfaction of local residents.

Such initiatives have three important features: open technical infrastructure made available to all; open services that enable others to use that infrastructure; and, crucially, open behaviours that create a cohesive, helpful community around the infrastructure that will ensure it is used. And this openness starts with friendly, can-do, inclusive behaviours from everyone involved (and not really the technology): the culture thing again.

The right people

 There’s no doubt that developing these new ways of doing things will be a challenge. Altering organisational behaviours takes subtle, thoughtful action by emotionally competent folks with a genuine knack for handling emergent change. Governments will need to look hard and think laterally to find them.

From the inside

People, both workers and managers, who have done well in typically procedural government environments, may not be ideally suited to guiding a transition to more emergent ways of working. New thinking will be needed.

There are people with the right mind-set already in government organisations. Some may not be visible because of the jobs they are in or because they are comparatively junior: they will need to be found, encouraged and perhaps offered different work. Some may be noticeably frustrated: with support and in a changed environment, perhaps their energies can be directed for the good. Those with the best potential may be mavericks or otherwise unusual: don’t ignore them.

It may also be necessary to find a few new people from the outside. The right ones may come from quite different backgrounds and have little experience of the work at hand. They will probably not be easily found through traditional recruitment methods.

From the outside

Many government organisations have established relationships with large providers of consultancy, and that is the natural place to look for help; but consultancies optimised for analysing complicated stuff, designing intricate things, delivering big projects or who are otherwise steeped in Complicated ways of working are likely to find it hard to adapt their approach to handling the Complex. It’s a little like expecting Olympic gold-medal-winning rowing crews to retrain and repeat their success in Synchronised-swimming. Whilst these organisations may have individuals with the right skills, the context in which they work and the way they are managed makes it hard for them to behave in, and support, the emergent ways of working needed to cope with complexity.

Since handling complexity is about organic changes rooted within the organisation there is much less scope for big set-piece technology implementations or organisational restructurings. There is much less money to be made. With big providers, there would always be an urge to convert help for the Complex into more profitable support for the Complicated; and this may not be the right thing. The DNA of these organisations is just not right: smaller organisations that focus specifically on supporting emergent change may be a better choice.


Complexity changes the game of government. To be successful in the future, governments must foster the emergence of a quite different working culture that simultaneously copes with the new complexity and continues to deliver existing services reliably and well. This new culture must combine: an experimental, iterative, holistic approach to tackling big challenges; intensive collaboration with colleagues, partners and citizens; and openness of infrastructure, technology and behaviours. Finding the right people to lead the development of these new ways of thinking and working will be absolutely critical.

In times of change the learners will inherit the earth while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

A bit of excitement about transforming government

I am officially very excited.  I was mooching the web a few weeks ago and came across Gov 2.0 Expo - a conference about using the web for transforming government - held in Washington DC - May 25-27.  Three things happened: a subconscious flashing light lit, a contract was delayed and my new passport turned up weeks earlier than expected. Portents were good, the runes aligned and Mrs F wanted me out of the house. So I went. And... it was the most interesting event I have been to for utterly ages - or longer.  I am so glad I was there. Since arriving back I have enthused about it with anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn't) and I guess I now need to write my excitement down.

The conference was about using the web as a platform both for improving the efficiency of government and for enabling a new style of much more effective government. There were several thousand attendees - mainly from the US - representing diverse interests: central government, local government, bloggers and journalists, entrepreneurs, researchers, technical people, all sorts. Although there were many technology firms present, the conference did not have an overly tech flavour.  (I admit was a tad worried.)

For me the flavour was...

Flavour of the conference

Here are some issues that struck me...

Government as a Platform

The chap running the conference - Tim O’Reilly - a prime mover in the Gov 2.0 movement (and coiner of the term), talks about moving away from a Vending Machine model of government - where citizens put in taxes to get services out - to a much more distributed model where government’s role is to provide a “Platform” for the delivery of services; a platform that can be used by anyone: government organisations, private enterprises or even citizens themselves.

We have an example of the beginnings of such a service here in the UK: If you know of a faulty streetlight, for example, you can use their website to log the problem and mark it on a map. They automatically inform the appropriate authority and chase them up if necessary: hugely efficient. These guys are logging more than a thousand reports a week. Some local authorities have opened up their fault logging systems to allow reports to be dropped straight in by the service: the beginnings of the Platform.

For more watch Tim O’Reilly talking about this.

Opening up Data

There was much discussion of the importance of opening up data. (As has Mr Cameron lately - see his letter to government departments.) A presenter - Joshua Robin, from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, talked about how they solved the problem of getting good quality, real-time information about bus arrivals to travellers.  They had tried to build a system using a conventional delivery approach and made little progress over many months. So, as a pilot, they decided to make their raw real-time data available on the Internet and invited a group of developers to a meeting to explain the problem. The next day one of them had produced an early solution on Google Maps, there was a live website within two weeks, live data fees to electronic signs within four weeks and an iPhone app within eight. All of this at no cost to Joshua’s Department!

It’s a relatively trivial example in the context of many government procurements but I feel that the principles of opening data up, engaging developers directly, tackling things incrementally are very widely applicable.  A simple idea with real vision.

More in Joshua's presentation

Social Media

There was much about social media - Wikis, Blogs, Twitter, Facebook et al - and the huge opportunities they present.  Although I have been involved with implementing some of these tools recently, I learned that I understood less than I thought.  Example: I was surprised when I saw, first-hand, really rich, smart ways that those involved in this Gov 2.0 thing were using Twitter and blogs to communicate ideas, build community and get things happening.

So many friends and colleagues I talk to about social media tell me the same thing; that they have heard about it but just don't have the time/need to get involved.  I absolutely understand: it's completely new and it takes time to get grips with.  I am more convinced than ever that folk involved in any way in transformative change in government, particularly leaders, need to understand social media and have a strategy for using them within their organisations.

Plenty of other folks have written about the conference: try Arianna Huffington or Publivate.


This stuff is important. It is going to happen. Get on the bus.