Government as a Platform? Bah! Humbug!

Humbug anyone?

In my previous article in this series focusing on Gov as a Platform, I talked about the formidable challenges that lie ahead in making Government-as-a-Platform a reality. But how about the GaaP concept itself – does it make sense?

The GaaP concept is based on the business model of companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft that built commercial platforms, opened them to third parties and allowed them to develop all kinds of applications. The idea here was that by opening the platform to others, it would unleash the creativity of developers and result in applications and capabilities limited only by people’s imagination. This business model proved to be fantastically successful and, nearly overnight, created a new market for platform apps. What has made the platforms such a success has been that they are based on open standards, foster and facilitate an environment of collaboration among the developers, and do not require a large investment to participate. Essentially, just about anybody can develop and sell apps for iPhones, for example.

But will this platform business model work in a government environment? Andrea Di Maio, Managing Vice President responsible for government research at Gartner, wrote a very interesting piece back in 2009 on why government cannot be a platform. He sees these flaws in the concept:

  • Government operates in a more regulated environment – The data the government holds has statutory restrictions that commercial entities either do not have or are less restrictive. For example, when considering data for release, the government needs to determine if, from a regulatory aspect, the data is public data, data covered by the Freedom of Information Act, personal data, confidential data, classified data, etc. Different restrictions apply depending on the category of the data. These regulatory controls hinder the release of data.
  • The motivations of government are different from that of other platform providers – For starters, commercial platform companies are for-profit enterprises where success is measured by metrics such as revenue, profitability and growth. Government organizations do not exist to make a profit but rather to create what Di Maio calls “public value.” Success is measured by how effectively they fulfill their statutory mission and how well – and efficiently – they serve their customers/constituents. The metrics of success and rules of engagement are very different and, in the case of government, more complex.
  • Government is both a platform provider and a platform consumer – Government uses data from the private sector to fulfill many of its tasks (e.g., law enforcement), which it gets from commercial platforms (e.g., social networks). It performs both functions at the same time.
  • Government provides services in domains where there is no business case for the private sector to do so. In fact, most of what government does is generally of little interest to the public at large, things like childcare, unemployment support, public education, basic healthcare – whose most frequent users are, as Di Maio puts it, “on the ‘wrong’ side of the digital divide (least affluent, least connected, etc.).”
  • Government is many different things to the same people at the same time – It plays many roles in our lives as an authority, protector, educator, health care provider – to name a few. Given these multiple roles, their attendant overlaps, and the varied nature of the relationships, it’s not clear where the platform boundaries should lie – or could even be sensibly defined.
  • Government remains accountable for anybody else’s mashups – While, in theory, application developers would bear liability for errors/problems in their government-platform applications (vs. the platform provider – except in cases where the failure was triggered by a problem in the platform), the government will be criticized. To avoid this, will the governments get involved in testing and certifying third-party applications?

While these are all very valid points, I personally do not believe that GaaP: (1) is an all-or-nothing proposition and (2) these are unsurmountable problems. GaaP will evolve and its direction will be driven by needs – so if there’s not a need in a certain area – or there are major regulatory obstacles – then it’s not likely anyone will expend the effort and money to create applications. It will be a natural evolution process.

What do you think – can the government be a platform?

Read Larry’s full series of posts on GaaP.  

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