Joining up the dots

Josh Chambers looks at global examples for a clue as to how Whitehall can work with local governments to produce true “government as a platform”.

Space is not, as Star Trek claims, “the final frontier”. There is a darker, deeper domain much closer to home: the chasm between central and local government IT.

Local authorities use their own systems, build their own websites, and create their own transaction services. But all agencies are facing the same challenges – increasing demand, higher expectations, and the need for strong security. How can central and local share expertise, and work closer together?

The answer is partly in the 2015 Budget, which announced that the Government Digital Service (GDS) will be working with local government. Until now, it has lacked the remit and funding to provide its expertise more broadly.

The move fits with a popular new idea: the concept of “government as a platform”. This holds that public sector agencies should use common technology systems, allowing greater interaction between central and local, while individual agencies focus more on the delivery of their services.

Government as a platform is already being applied across the world. Take Australia, which has just announced the creation of a GDS-style Digital Transformation Office. The central government is already working on two projects that cut across both federal and state IT. 

The first project is a single log-in system, MyGov, for all public services. It was originally created for citizens to pay their taxes online, but now it will be shared with local government for all public sector interactions. MyGov should cost US$39,000 to be installed by a new agency, but federal government is waiving the fee to ensure that every public service uses this secure system.

The second project is GovCMS, which aims to provide a single backend system for all Australian public sector websites. Central government has procured a content management system (CMS) and will work continually to ensure that it is up-to-date and secure. Using it means that information can be shared right across the public sector, and officials won’t have to learn new web skills when they move to another part of government.

But government as a platform is about more than just websites. For example, Malaysia is encouraging all agencies to store their data on servers run by central government. This approach was catalysed by the recent catastrophic flooding in the west of the country: agencies that used central government systems found their data backed up somewhere else; those which had purchased their own systems ran the risk of losing valuable information.

The argument for joining up data centres is also about cost. These giant computers need to run 24 hours a day, guzzling energy while often being under-used. So why would an agency in Sabah or Swansea want to run its own data centre when it could rely on central government’s procurement power instead?

What’s notable among all of these projects is that central government has sought to attract local government, rather than forcing a change. MyGov has been made available for free; the GovCMS team is actively promoting their platform to local government; Malaysia is trying to persuade public service agencies.

This approach differs from the Government Digital Service, which in 2011 quickly moved to shut down departmental websites and migrate them onto a single platform: GOV.UK. That approach would not work with local government, given the different political leadership and accountability structures in place.

But a conciliatory approach could also work outside of technology. When the UK managed to change EU procurement rules two years ago, Sally Collier – then the managing director of the Government Procurement Service and now chief executive of the Crown Commercial Service – told me she hoped local government officials would attend Cabinet Office workshops to learn about how to benefit from the changes.

Perhaps other skills could be shared widely too. The civil service academy recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee could be opened up to local government. And why are delivery units only focused on central government? As Sir Michael Barber, who founded Tony Blair’s original delivery unit, notes in his new book: most governments struggle to get policy promises delivered, but there is a common science to getting things done. Malaysia’s central delivery unit, PEMANDU, even provides management consultancy to hospitals in the country.

At this point, Whitehall veterans may be shaking their heads. The political pendulum swings between greater centralisation and greater localisation. For example, the 1984 papers in the National Archives show a deliberate move to give agencies greater control and flexibility, rather than the current drive for common frameworks and systems.

But the concept of government as a platform is merely an extension of Francis Maude’s “tight-loose” vision. Policymaking is actively loosened to allow debate and different approaches. Meanwhile, government procures as a single buyer to save money, and build a system that allows all agencies to interact.

Perhaps, in time, the pendulum will swing the other way again. But many governments are going with this approach across the world. Government as a platform is not a new enterprise: may the civil service boldly go where others have gone before.

Joshua Chambers is editor of FutureGov.Asia    

Colin Marrs

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