In Canberra, the Digital Transformation Office has just formally begun a $250 million four-year program to bring most government services online.
This is a once in-a-generation chance to build a very different model of government, one that sees public agencies aggressively collaborate with the digital sector to build a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs and established players.
Traditional public sector delivery is carried out by single agencies focused on the delivery of particular services. The new model sees government as an open platform for collaboration to innovate and deliver services.
Take as an analogy Apple created an ecosystem of app providers using the platform of the App store. The genius of this was to wrap up Apple’s technical requirements into a standardised protocol (known as a SDK) and then let providers build whatever applications they considered would satisfy an end user.
We have seen already some early examples of this type of thinking in government. Melbourne City Council has released a diverse suite of data ranging from property development, parking records, shade and greenhouse emissions. Rather than try and anticipate the needs of ratepayers they have let developers create applications they think will be most helpful to consumers.
The aim is to create a rich ecosystem of providers competing to engage citizens. This points to an important principle: government has to be prepared to a) let go of control and b) allow others to share the risks and returns. Such an approach fuels investment and the very innovation governments are so desperately seeking.
If well designed, an open platform can support and work with a thriving network of non-government providers. These players range from small community organisations and businesses, to entrepreneurial NGOs, academic institutions, consultancies and large tech vendors.“Citizens are seen as individuals with distinct and sometimes complex needs, and are the pivot around which all services are designed.”
For the platform model to work, however, providers will need to be organised and have a good understanding of government, community and citizen needs.
In essence, this is taking the still-novel concept of commissioning and giving it a digital twist: using powerful digital platforms to commission work and services for the public good.
Government forgoes its role as the end provider and becomes a powerful well-resourced incubator, the buyer of a vast array of products and services, the provider of data, the setter of policy and standards, and the safety net for those the ecosystem can’t help.
The reality is that the public and private sectors have been collaborating since the colonial days. What is different is the mechanisms available for the free exchange and testing of ideas and products, and for the more explicit engagement of non-government players in the design and delivery of public goods.
In this new world, too, citizens are seen as individuals with distinct and sometimes complex needs, and are the pivot around which all services are designed.
These shifts in both the approach to and execution of service delivery design challenges the traditional policy and legislative procedures employed by government. But many agencies are rising to that challenge.
Driven by urgency
An exciting example is the NSW Safe Home for Life reform program. This program represents a major rethink of how to give children at risk safe permanent homes and is underpinned by a complete rethink of the technology that underpins the assessment and placement process.
Instead of building its own new system, NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) went through a year-long open and collaborative design process with potential providers. Children were at the heart of this design process. As a result FACS has broken their tender into eight technology bundles, known collectively as Child Story.
In this approach the traditional public/private divide gave way to a partnership, with both sectors committed to meeting citizen needs.
The DTO can play a powerful role by similarly tapping the innovation, energy and experience of providers. Take for example transactions and payments, an area which governments have an obvious need to offer citizens simple, easy-to-use applications
Australia’s banks are among the most tech savvy in the world and have powerful transactional platforms, which in an open collaborative public sphere would enable government to exploit the innovation of this sector.
This innovation does not have to be just the front-end applications. As leaders in digital transformation, Australian banks have rebuilt their business systems around digital technologies. The same approach – working with the banks themselves – offers the opportunity of major productivity improvements to agencies seeking better and more efficient service delivery.
Government becomes a collaborator and a provider of infrastructure and services, which is shared with other players in the ecosystem. This is an example of the sort of sophisticated interplay that, if government is willing, will see a major injection of energy and intellectual horsepower from providers into the public sphere.