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A Lightbulb Turns on: Government as Platform

Reading O’Reilly’s chapter in Open Government, “Government as Platform,” was a turning point for me.  So far nothing else has given me a better conceptual model for understanding the role of government as information facilitator and innovation catalyst; nor illuminated more precisely what Open Government actually is and what proponents are fundamentally attempting to accomplish.

What the heck is Open Government, anyways?

From the time I started my independent study, I've been attempting to wrap my head around what exactly is Open Government, otherwise known as Government 2.0. In some contexts, people use these terms to refer to open data and information transparency to ensure government is held accountable and citizens have access to public information. Others use Open Government to refer to the innovative collaborations between government and citizens made possible by Web 2.0 digital technologies.  Some conceptualize it as eGovernment; doing the business of government — applying for various licenses, updating vehicle registration, etc — more efficiently online.  While still others envision it as eDemocracy, which "aims for broader and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies." Kicking off his initial description of Government 2.0, I love how O'Reilly asks, "What the heck does that mean?" My sentiments exactly!  And he nails it:

Much like its predecessor, Web 2.0, “Government 2.0” is a chameleon, a white rabbit term, that seems to be used by people to mean whatever they want it to mean.  For some, it is the use of social media by government agencies. For others, it is government transparency, especially as aided by government-provided data APIs. Still others think of it as the adoption of cloud computing, wikis, crowdsourcing, mobile applications, mashups, developer contests or all of the other ephiphenomena of Web.0 as applied to the job of government.

All of these ideas seem important, but none of them seem to get to the heart of the matter.

Web 2.0 was not a new version of the World Wide Web; it was a renaissance after the dark ages of the dotcom bust, a rediscovery of the power hidden in the original design of the World Wide Web. Similarly, Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.

And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.

Government 2.0, then is the use of technology – especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 – to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

Government as Platform

As I wrote earlier, information transparency is essential for healthy democracies and a necessary ingredient in governmental information management.  Yet it is only one facet in a much larger vision of the role government can play in the relationship between information and innovation.  We need to hold our governments accountable, yes.  But, wouldn't it be amazing if we went a step further and imagined ways for government to actually work better exponentially? Not simply ways to keep corruption in check? I'd like to play offense, not just defense in designing the world I want.  Consider O’Reilly’s profound metaphor of re-envisioning government as a platform: 

If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small. The personal computer was such a platform. So was the World Wide Web. This same platform dynamic is playing out right now in the recent success of the Apple iPhone.  Where other phones have had a limited menu of applications developed by the phone vendor and a  few carefully chosen partners, Apple built a framework that allowed virtually anyone to build application for the phone, leading to an explosion of creativity with more than 100,000 applications appearing for the phone in little more than 18 months, and more than 3,000 new ones now appearing every week.  

This is the right way to frame the question of Government 2.0. How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions?

Government as a platform’s primary role, then, is as facilitator and convener.  One of the points O’Reilly makes is that the government can’t compete with the speed and nimbleness characteristic of the private sector.  And why should it?  Government can provide the eco-system — the platform — for others to build on top of.  Remember, with the iPhone, Apple let others do what they do best: develop compelling applications. They simply provided a very well-designed platform.  

Platform Metaphors

O’Reilly brilliantly provides other metaphors in explaining his new (re)visioning of government. He contrasts government as “vending machine” to government as “bazaar:” 

This is a radical departure from the existing model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.” We pay our taxes, we expect services, And when we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest – essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint. 

What if, instead of a vending machine, we thought of government as the manager of a marketplace?… A small number of vendors have the ability to get their products into the machine, the choices are limited, and the prices are high.  A bazaar, by contrast, is a place where the community itself exchanges goods and services. 

He also points to our national highway system is an example of “platform thinking:”

[T]he Federal-Aid Highway act of 1956, which committed the United States to building an interstate highway system, was a triumph of platform thinking, a key investment in facilities that had a huge economic and social multiplier effect. Though government builds the network of roads that tie our cities together, it dos not operate the factories, farms, and businesses that use the network… Government does set policies for the use of those roads, regulating interstate commerce, levying gasoline taxes and fees on heavy vehicles that damage the roads… and performing many other responsibilities appropriate to a “platform provider.”


If we are to reimagine government as a platform, we can then apply a host of design principles to help safeguard its success.  The first that O’Reilly discusses, and arguably the most important, is openness. He writes, “the platforms that are the most generative of new economic activity are those that are the most open.” Explaining how the innovations first in the PC era and then with the World Wide Web hinged on openness he asserts the “extraordinary power of open standards to foster innovation. When the barriers to entry to a market are low, entrepreneurs are free to invent to future.”

A second principle is to “build a simple system and let it evolve.”  This may be counterintuitive to some.  Why not build a wonderfully complex system that will fit the needs of many parties?  Don’t complex problems call for complex solutions?  When it comes to designing an open platform the answer is resoundingly — no.  A complex system limits the ability for others to grab hold of it, and manipulate it for their own purposes.  O’Reilly notes that “there are now thousands of Twitter applications, precisely because the core Twitter service does so little. By thinking simple, Twitter allowed its users and an ecosystem of application developers to evolve new features and functionality.  This is the essence of generativity.” To this point O’Reilly quotes John Gall who wrote Systemantics, an early and influential book on software engineering: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.  The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.  You have to start over beginning with a working simple system.”

O’Reilly identifies a number of other insightful and important principles to consider in designing a viable platform.  All are worthy of discussion, perhaps when it's not so late in the evening. A principle that I’d like to leave with is one that Noveck discusses as well in Wiki Government. That is: the importance of embracing an ethos of experimentation and a willingness to fail. Over and over again, as necessary.  

Noveck proposed that there be experimentation labs (I imagine these to be similar to Google Labs) where new tools, designs and processes can be worked out before being pushed to the main government portal sites.  Putting experimentations within the context of a 
“lab” could deflect some of the stigma around failure and encourage government personal to go ahead and try out new ideas.  

The ethos of many open source software developers is “fail early and often.”  O’Reilly speaks to differences in culture between those in the tech industry and the public sector:

A cultural shift is also required. Empowering employees to “fail forward fast” accepts and acknowledges that even when an experiment fails, you will still learn something.  Software and web culture not only embraces this mindset, but revels in it – you never know which idea will be the million-dollar idea.  Once the cost of that experimentation is reduced, you can quickly scrap a product or feature that no one uses…

In my mind, this cultural shift may be both the most difficult and crucial change to implement.

We are living in what Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams describe in Wikinomics as the “age of participation."  The benefits of first envisioning and then designing government as an open platform in this era are manifold.  As an open platform, government can benefit from innovations both inside and outside government.  It can also concentrate its efforts where it will be most effective as a platform provider; in providing the underlying information infrastructure that others can build on top of.   As an open platform, government can harness the creativity and abilities of the participatory populace and put our talents to use "to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level."

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