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[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to "small pieces loosely joined."] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis - such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that "did" HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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