Government-as-a-Platform - Former White House CIO argues the case for sharing data with private sector

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 21, 2015
Vivek Kundra, former White House CIO and now Salesforce executive, believes that government-as-a-platform will require data-sharing partnerships with companies.


Vivek Kundra
Vivek Kundra

Government-as-a-Platform is at the forefront of the public sector's agenda. Just a year ago and barely anyone had even heard of the term, but it seems that you can't go to an event today without it being the topic of a lot of conversations. Which is a good thing, considering that there are very few (if any) examples of living, breathing, all-encompassing government platforms.

We are still figuring out what a Government-as-a-Platform looks like and how to get there. And it is the top priority here in the UK for the Government Digital Service. I have written a few pieces now on what the main problems/priorities are, which includes everything from the impact on policy making to how the public sector can effectively build an ecosystem.

And this week at Salesforce's World Tour event in London I got the opportunity to sit down and pick the brains of Vivek Kundra – now Salesforce's EVP of Emerging Markets, but also former Whit House CIO. Kundra was the first ever federal government CIO in the US and introduced a number of interesting initiatives, including the then controversial cloud first policy.

With Kundra's extensive experience, I thought he might be able to shed some light on how governments should approach the creation of Government-as-a-Platform. And one of his most interesting insights – one which I hadn't heard before in relation to this topic – was that if governments want to do this properly they should really be thinking about how they can make use of the data held by private companies.

I've argued previously that data sharing and governance is going to be one of the most tricky, but most also the most important, things to get right for Government-as-a-Platform to work. This is especially true given the public and the media's sensitivities towards how the public sector uses its data.

And whilst I had considered that new data governance and data sharing models would be required across government, I had not even thought that governments should be considering data-sharing agreements with the private sector. However, Kundra's argument goes that governments are no longer the place you'd go to if you wanted to know everything about a city or a proportion of the population, because actually, companies have got far richer data. Kundra says:

Something really, really interesting is happening. The old model of innovation is that the government has all the data. But today what we are beginning to see is that innovation is coming from the edges. When you look at companies like Uber, they have more data on when people are being picked up and dropped off, how effectively a city is being leveraged. And companies like that are able to roll out services that are cheaper than taking a bus or a tube and they are able to do that because they are using data science.

So I think that the real question becomes, in this new world we are entering, where these companies have much richer data, it becomes even more important to figure out how the government partners with the private sector to deliver that Government-as-a-Platform. The old model was that the government had all this data and it was a big scary government, that has changed significantly.

And of course he's right. Our supermarkets, because of their loyalty and reward programmes, probably know us more personally than our governments do. If you think about how this data, combined with the data government holds, could potentially have a transformational impact on the allocation of resources and the delivery of public services.

However, given the sensitivities in Europe around data protection, would the public be willing to consider this? I'm not so sure. Especially if the government attempts to do this behind closed doors and without properly informing the public of the benefits.

Kundra argues that there are a whole host of de-identification technologies now available on the market that can help move this debate forward, but given how government's have treated our personal data in recent times, trusting the private and public sector to work together and share our data will be a big ask.

Personal control and insight into how your data is being used would go a long way to helping drive this agenda, but getting to that point is incredibly difficult – especially considering the siloed nature of government data structures at the moment.

But, an interesting idea nonetheless.

What's your definition?

Earlier on in the day Kundra hosted a panel debate on Government-as-a-Platform, where he asked each of the spokespeople what their definition of Government-as-a-Platform is. This is one of the biggest challenges at the moment, trying to translate what a government platform is and looks like.

Some answered that it allows for citizens to have access to all services via one portal, others said that it was a thriving ecosystem sitting on an all-encompassing platform, whilst one person mentioned that it is simply the ability to take advantage of shared web-based infrastructure through the use of open standards.

At present the UK government is explaining Government-as-a-Platform as the ability to create and reuse common services, or building blocks, across government. For example, GOV.UK is now a CMS platform for all of government to use, instead of each department and body having to own its own individual website. Other building blocks are set to include an identity authentication system for citizens called Verify, with a payments system likely to follow soon.

However, I was keen to get Kundra's take on what it means to him. He said that countries like the UK, US and Japan, where government have been undertaking quantitive easing programmes, are going to have to figure out other ways to deliver a better service, at a lower cost, whilst facing an increasing demand from citizens.

From Kundra's perspective, Government-as-a-Platform is about three different elements: the citizen, the ecosystem and the building blocks. He says:

I would look at Government-as-a-Platform from three distinct lenses. The first is the most important, which is from the lens of the citizen. At the end of the day if you're a citizen there shouldn't be such a gap in terms of how you deal with services in your everyday life – whether it's making a reservation at your favourite restaurant or ordering a book online or buying a plane ticket. We cannot continue in the 21st Century with an industrial era model of government where it is siloed and you have to navigate the maze of bureaucracy. It is critical that for the citizen that the government deals with citizens on their terms and not the other way around. I've always said that the best trip to a government office is the one you don't have to make. That's the most important aspect of this platform in my view, put the citizen at the heart of your operations.

Second, when you think about technology and sharing, how do you make sure that when you look

at platforms in the technology world, the companies that have done well are the ones where the world has built on top of them. In the same spirit, what you've got to be able to do is enable, whether it's local or central government, to abstract these artificial barriers. Because if you're an entrepreneur and you're starting a business, you don't really think about if it's London, central government or some other entity. So from a technology perspective you've got to look at models that have worked when it comes to platforms. It's around ecosystems”

The last area is a radical re-imagination of business models. Why should you have to wait a decade for yet another platform shift? Most governments are still stuck in the 1960s with their mainframes and SNA networks. And you need to be able to rethink those building blocks. It's around building blocks of innovation that will allow you to leapfrog to mobile, to social, to cloud, to data science. You shouldn't have to wait.

The local problem

Finally, I wanted to get Kundra's take on how he thinks that government's can overcome the challenge of integrating Government-as-a-Platform at both a central and local level. For example, here in the UK the central government is making big strides, but ultimately a lot of services are actually delivered at a local level. And central government has very little control over how local government delivers those services. The same is true of federal and state government in the US.

So how can we get over this? Because if we really want to achieve a true Government-as-a-Platform vision, integrating government as a whole is essential. Kundra's answer? Recognise that you are greater as a whole. He says:

If you look at most governments, they continue to buy technology as a confederation of small to medium businesses, instead of operating as a £20 billion entity. And demanding that the market shift. Government historically has had a self image problem, where it doesn't think that it can set the bar and have the technology companies follow in its lead.

If you change those procurement policies and buying patterns and start operating as a £20 billion entity in the UK, you will have materially different outcomes. Part of what you need to be able to do is lower the coefficient of friction. There is too much fiction between central government and local government.

But from a technology perspective, why isn't there in every country an app exchange for governments? Because governments have a natural monopoly, but they're not competing with each other in the same way. You can get amazing innovation if you start taking what's happening in London and start sharing it with other city councils across the country.

My take

Some interesting thoughts from a very interesting man. However, whilst I agree and am enthusiastic about a lot of his points, some of these are going to be harder to implement into practice than he'd like.

For example, data sharing plans with the private sector will face huge hurdles and barriers from privacy activists and is prime for some attention grabbing headlines in the media. Not only this, but the governments in the west typically proven to handle these initiatives poorly by trying to trick the public and not giving them the full details – education will be key, as will giving them control of their data.

Disclosure: Salesforce is a premier partner at time of writing.