Guest blog: Digital is not about technology, government as a platform is not about IT

6 Oct 2015, 8:40 pm

by Dave Briggs, Head of Digital & Design, Adur and Worthing Councils

In our new series on Local Government as a Platform (LGaaP) Dave Briggs argues that ‘platform thinking’ won’t work by ‘slapping nicely-designed front-end lipstick onto legacy pigs’. It’s about rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet customer needs. Putting digital, and platforms, into the ‘box marked IT project’ is a massive mistake, he says.

Dave-Briggs-head-and-shoulders-smallI’ve been involved in various conversations where I’ve been confused about how other people define platform thinking, which I think goes to the root of the lot of the issues around the wider digital agenda – issues brought to prominence recently in the debate following several key folk from GDS deciding to leave recently.

I defer to Mark Thompson‘s thinking on a lot of this stuff. He gets to the heart of the debate around whether digital is more front end design than fixing the back office line-of-business IT stack (hint: a great website is lovely, but real change can’t happen until the legacy is fixed, which can’t be achieved without thinking more widely about how your organisation works).

The proposition is this: that ‘digital’ describes not a set of specific technologies or even approaches to technology, but the age in which we are currently living, and the appropriate operating models for that age. It also describes the way in which customers increasingly want to interact with organisations.

Thus digital, and the strategy for delivering on the digital opportunity that is government as a platform, is not around technology but rather rethinking how organisations work.

Technology is very much the start of the process. This is slightly unfortunate as it does provide the opportunity for people to put digital, and platforms, into the box marked IT project, which is a massive mistake. Platform technology without a platform operating model will never deliver on the opportunity.

So, the key elements for me when it comes to platform thinking are:

  • capabilities not systems – instead of thinking about solving problems with a single ‘system’ (think of that word in the widest sense) we break down requirements into generic capabilities, which can then be put together to create the most appropriate solution to the problem at the time
  • making use of commoditised, utility-like computing – in government, we do not need to use bespoke technology, but instead in many instances can use what the market can provide, at a much lower cost than traditional technology which frees up resource for the front line
  • solutions for now that don’t limit us in future – capabilities must be designed in such a way that they are not ‘hard coded’ for the way they run now, but can be flexible to meet future needs which may be very different
  • create and consume – the platform must be put together in such a way that both we and other organisations can make use of its capabilities, as creators (building our own apps) and consumers (making use of what others have done)
  • disintermediation – or getting rid of the middle men. We’re only now really starting to see the effects of this with the likes of Uber and Airbnb using the internet to directly connect people with those who can meet their needs. These are true digital business models, not just slapping nicely-designed front-end lipstick onto legacy pigs.

This is what has been so frustrating about some recent discussions – rather than focusing on the big picture of rethinking operating models, folk go straight into IT mode and start discussing which booking system is best, or who has the payment engine everyone should be using. The concept of capabilities is grasped, but only at the level of technology.

At Adur and Worthing, we are at the very beginning of delivery of platform thinking and operating models. With technology, we build or buy capabilities that can then be used and re-used many times to deliver appropriate solutions to needs, by us and by others, and we are also able to consume on the platform too – so if someone else has something neat we’d like to use, we can slot it into our systems.

This way of working can happen with other assets, as well as technology – people, knowledge, skills, buildings, open spaces, vehicles – anything. The key is to construct our organisation in such a way that all our assets are effectively capabilities that can be used in different ways by different people – and indeed so that we can bring in assets from elsewhere on the ‘platform’. Often this this supported by digital technology, but that isn’t the starting point, nor the outcome.

For example, how can we make the most of the expertise of people who work at the Council and those who don’t work here but nonetheless might help us make things happen? The capability here might enable people and organisations to trade knowledge, skills or time without the need for costly administration or for money to change hands. This is an example of a non-technology asset being shared across a system supported by a digital platform, built upon off-the shelf technology, which cuts out the need for central bureaucracy.

That’s where we need to be with government as a platform.

Digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end. It is not about fixing on a single solution for everything, but creating an ecosystem of innovation.

It is not about making everyone use computers to do everything, but instead is about making use of internet-enabled technology to run a minimal back office that enables us to maintain and grow front line delivery of what customers need.

Note: this is an edited version of a blog that was originally published on Dave Brigg’s blog.