This week government 2.0 enthusiasts will meet in DC for the Gov 2.0 Summit organized by Tim O’Reilly with a quite interesting list of vendor sponsors and an impressive number of speakers from government and elsewhere. Most of the people who are driving and implementing change in the Obama administration will be either speaking or attending, and the #gov20 hashtag on twitter returns lots of tweets that witness great expectations for the event.
Tim O’Reilly, one the very first to spot the new Internet trends a few years ago and to introduce the term “web 2.0”, has been addressing government officials in DC and elsewhere with his vision of government as a platform. This has been circulating for a few months rather quietly, but now is vigorously emerging – in conjunction with the above-mentioned conference – as the new buzzword for “government 2.0”.
His views are summarized in a recent article on TechCrunch and is also available through an extended session hosted by the Federal Aviation Authority back in June. Many of the recent initiatives undertaken by the Obama administration as well as by governments around the world on web 2.0 are covered by Tim’s government as a platform: data.gov, recovery.gov, appsfordemocracy, different kinds of crowdsourcing, and so forth.
O’Reilly derives this concept from the technology industry, where the most successful companies have all been platform companies, enabling their partners’ and ecosystem’s success. Examples he often mentions are Microsoft, Google, Apple. Platform providers allow others to develop applications and move in directions that they would never think about. To some extent, this is true for the open government data movement too, where public data are made available for others (vendors, non-profit organizations, other government agencies or the public at large) to extract and create value.
He highlights some basic characteristics of platform organizations: they embrace open standards; they build simple system that can evolve; they develop for participation; they learn from their users, and especially those who do unexpected things; they lower barriers to experimentation; they build a culture of measurement; they celebrate developers; and they do not reinvent the wheel.
Undoubtedly most of the above characteristics do apply to government organizations that really want to catch the innovation wave triggered by web2.0.
However it seems to me that there are a few flaws in equating government to a platform. Let me examine some:
- Government operates in an inherently more regulated environment, while platform companies break new ground in domains that are either lightly regulated or not regulated at all. For instance, when looking at data, government struggles with regulatory distinctions between public data, data covered by freed of information, personal data, confidential data, and so forth.
- Government motivations are different from other platform providers. Technology platform providers ultimately want to make money: their partners’ and developers’ success determines how much money they will make. Government aims at creating “public value”, which is a combination of fulfilling its political mission, being efficient and providing services to its own constituents. Therefore the measures of success as well as the rules of engagement of those partners and developers are different, and more complicated.
- Government is both a platform provider and a platform consumer. Focusing on government as a platform provider misses the very important point of how government can use web 2.0 to leverage other platforms (e.g. data provided by citizens on a public social network) to discharge its own tasks (e.g. intercepting fraudulent behaviors, or protecting constituents in case of emergency). Reality is that government needs to run, source, and utilize a variety of different platforms in order to create public value.
- Government must remain a solution provider in domains where there is no business case for others (businesses or the public) to do so. Mashups and other cool web 2.0 examples abound in areas where mashers can create new services, new value, new business models. However most of what government does is stuff that nobody else is much interested in: child care, unemployment support, basic health care, public education, where often those who are the most frequent users are also those on the “wrong” side of the digital divide (least affluent, least connected, etc). While there is a lot that web 2.0 can do to better connect government with the non-profit sector, it is important to appreciate that being a platform may not be a priority in several domains for quite some time.
- Government is many different things at the same time to the same people. Government is an authority, a protector, a supplier, a democracy, and entertains with citizens all these relationships at the same time. This implies that it can be a platform provider, user, integrator, or just a unique solution provider, and all these roles overlap in such a way that it is difficult to determine what would be the sensible boundaries of a platform.
- Government remains accountable for anybody else’s mashups. Using the Apple or Google analogy, the liability for mistakes and glitches in applications built using their platform remain with application developers (unless they expose a problem in the platform). if something goes wrong with a mashup or “app-for-democracy” using government data that got a prize or some form or recognition by government, be assured that government will be criticized. So, will governments find themselves thoroughly testing and certifying third party applications? How does it work with O’Reilly’s suggestion to lower barriers to experimentation and permit failure?
These are just some of the reasons why viewing government as a platform is just too simplistic. For sure, some or most of the attributes that O’Reilly recognizes as key to “government as a platform” – such as openness, design principles, culture of measurement and so forth – remain very important attribute of a future government. What is required, though, is some more pragmatism about where such a model does make sense and can deliver value, and where it does not, and what other models can capture the complexity of government roles and responsibilities.
It is probably more accurate to say that “government has a platform” (and probably more than one), i,e. data, common processes and solution patterns it can share with others to create value.. But definitely it is not a platform.