Government as a Platform: The Opportunity for GovTech
I. THE SHIFTING GOVERNMENT LANDSCAPE
The traditional governmental functions of maintaining order and preserving the rights and duties of citizens are progressively being upstaged by a much larger agenda, of governments acting as enablers. As an instance of this, consider the recent interest among governments the world over, in measuring and enhancing the level of happiness among their populations. However, it goes without saying that the governments’ role as the neutralizing blanket of security and the arbiter of legal remedies remains central to what they do, even more so in some parts of the world. But these are now perceived as the bare minimum of what a government ought to do. This shift in focus was stimulated by the establishment of modern welfare states and is now intensifying with rapidly changing citizen needs and advancing technological capabilities to service them. It has historically led to an escalation in the provision of services through the government, an area which is facing strong headwind in the current economic climate with mounting public debt. Moving along the same trajectory, today governments largely act to create enabling conditions for their subjects to act as independent and resourceful economic agents.
Moreover, today governments are functioning in a complex environment, which is a mesh of forces and trends that tug at each other in countless ways. The nature of events in this operating ecosystem is such that they may be triggered by a multitude of forces, acting over an immediate or gradual time horizon, involving diverse stakeholders and having multiple dimensions. This effectively creates a complex network of causation and effectuation, where there are too many unknown unknowns. Such events are not only bound to be unpredictable themselves but also by way of their consequences. What have come to be known as black-swan events have become a reality of the operating environment of governments.
II. GOVERNMENT AS A PLATFORM
As the role of the government increasingly inclines towards that of an enabling agent, it is inevitable that the service-delivery aspect of their function will gain greater significance. Since governments, worldwide, are struggling to manage expenses, the only way they can sustain this transition to becoming an enabling agency is through optimization of their operations, which account for 35-40% of total government expenditure. The full-service model of government is not scalable in the current economic environment.
The structure and organization of government is such that optimization efforts are likely to be limited to the ministry, agency, divisional or program level. Even if such efforts are launched at the government level, they will seep into these silos because information and communication channels are better integrated vertically than horizontally. Instead of optimizing functions and activities, government tends to focus on optimizing services, programs and schemes. It is becoming increasingly clear that greater efficiencies can be captured through the consolidation and integration of common-core infrastructures and repeatable activities. This has been most recently demonstrated by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in UK.
In the private economy, platform enabled technologies such as IoT are heralding dissolution of industrial boundaries. For instance, healthcare data collected by a profusion of “always-on, always on-you” devices is beginning to bring the medical and insurance sectors closer together. Similarly, we should also see a dissolving of departmental boundaries within the government. Rather than a siloed, service and program based plan, this would create a platform-architecture of government. Here technology and citizen expectations would favor a modular and activity-based design of services that are scalable with shifts in demand and shocks befalling the ecosystem. We are already seeing early steps in this direction with the “government as a platform” approach adopted by the GDS in providing digital services throughout UK. The creation of such digital platforms for delivering services can be seen as a precursor to the shift of the entire governmental machinery to a platform-architecture. It is likely that such an approach would permeate through all government operations.
However, an organization as large as the government is bound to have structural inertia and solutions that can expedite such a transition would be able to ride the wave of government transition.
III. OPPORTUNITY FOR GovTech
Increasingly, governments around the world are embarking upon the provision of digital services and creating in-house infrastructures for sustaining them. Over 130 nations provide digital services to their subjects, in one form or the other. The redesign of the information services through the gov.uk portal by the GDS in UK, the establishment of a digitization council IT Projektraad in Denmark, the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI) in India, electronic ID cards in Estonia, etc. are all examples of this. These initiatives should be seen as providing platforms for GovTech innovators to build upon. Such undertakings also serve to give direction for new projects, by helping understand near-term objectives that governments are working towards. As an example consider what governments around the world are doing with large scale open-data initiatives. This is freeing up massive amounts of public data, which is a valuable resource for innovators to create new solutions. The World Bank’s databank is another example of a long-standing public infrastructure which provides ready visualizations on multiple data points.
Technologies that we have come to associate with GovTech can effectively impact the government in two key ways: through the maximization of process efficiency and by optimizing service delivery. The design and delivery of services is a key component of government, as it is today and what it is shaping up to be tomorrow. As a professional working for the GDS in UK has noted recently, “most of government is mostly service design most of the time.” Opportunities are shaping up for the GovTech sector in two key areas:
- Transitioning the current framework of government to a platform blueprint and
- The design of new modular services on top of the government platform that are optimized at the activity or functional level.
In this changing landscape if GovTech innovators can find novel ways to capitalize on the shifts, they will be able to ride the wave itself. GovTech – whether it originates inside the government or through private enterprise – can eventually reduce the problem of governance to a problem of maximizing efficiency of processes!
 In this article we are only referring to democratic, welfare and capitalistic governmental systems