GaaP: Paths and Cliffs

This is Part 3 of a series of articles by Larry Larkin

Previous articles in the series described the myriad of benefits – financial, operational and social – that GaaP can bring. But how do we get there? The path, alas, is not a road to follow but, rather, a cliff to scale. The challenges associated with moving from our current siloed, monolithic application environment – pervasive across the Federal/Central governments – to an open-data platform ecosystem are mind-numbingly formidable.

The technology path, relatively speaking, is the easiest one because: (1) the technology is available, (2) the cost efficiencies are more apparent and measurable, and (3) ever decreasing budgets are acting as forcing functions. We’re still far away, particularly in the United States, from the “one big Government cloud” – but we’re making progress. The US Federal Government’s “Cloud First”mandate, which requires agencies to consider cloud-based solutions when seeking to implement new systems is a good example.

The showstoppers are issues like:

  • Leadership – What incentives do agencies/ministries have to collaborate to design and build a common architecture that delivers shared services? Even if the cost savings of a common approach are there, who is going to orchestrate and drive its development – who has the authority to make it all happen?
  • Control of the data – Today, the data owners, i.e., the government organizations, have control of the data. Will they be willing to relinquish some of that control and share this data? What data should be shared and what shouldn’t? Who decides? What role do citizens have in deciding which data about them can be shared and which cannot? What about privacy and security – and liability?
  • Open data standards – Who sets the standards on how data is shared and defines the interfaces? To date – by default – it has been the private sector, companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, that has been setting the standards.

These are complex issues that cut across government, industry and citizens. They tend to be manageable at the state and local government levels given their smaller scale. However, at the national government level, particularly in the United States, given its size and complexity, these issues are almost intractable.

For such an effort to succeed at the national level, a central organization with cognizance over all governmental departments and some measure of authority – the orchestra conductor, if you will – is a requisite first step. Happily, these organizations already exist: Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, and US Digital Service (USDS), together with 18F in the United States. GDS, by virtue of its ability to fund projects, has made tangible progress in constructing GaaP building blocks, platforms like GOV.UK for publishing and GOV.UK Verify for identity verification.

USDS and 18F, by necessity, have been focusing their limited resources in fixing critical systems at risk of failure and, in the process, inculcating industry best practices across US government agencies. Given their remarkable workload – and their success – I suspect it will be a while before they can focus on “global” GaaP issues.

So, the good news, is that several critical chess pieces of GaaP are in place. Given the magnitude of the cultural change (within government agencies) and massive resources the implementation of GaaP will require, the process will have to be evolutionary and will take time. But the movement is there…

Read Larry’s full series of posts on GaaP.  

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