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Why Government as a Platform is missing the point

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At the beginning of the year, the Government Digital Service (GDS) announced that it will work across all departments and agencies to identify platforms that work openly that could be shared to other departments - in essence creating Government as a Platform (GaaP). The idea behind GaaP is that public services are delivered via a digital platform - moving away from the needs of the department and focusing on the needs of the user. The platform-based model will, according to its supporters, enable the public sector to deliver more effective services, at the same time as reducing costs.

For those familiar with HMRC's self-assessment process, for example, GaaP would enable you to logon to your account but view all of your dealings with the public sector, not just your tax return. Using a single interface you could change the address on your driving license, apply for a passport or even check the status of your library books.

At the core of GaaP is the principle of open standards. It's impossible for single platforms to integrate and share data across different departments, users and customers unless the technology standards they're built on can all work together and are based on common open standards.

The issue of open standards is topping the public sector agenda. Liam Maxwell, the CTO of GDS recently backed an open source push, and his thoughts have been echoed at a local level as well. Leeds City Council CIO Dylan Roberts also argued in a recent article in CIO magazine that the public sector needs to force open standards on IT vendors - however reluctant they are. Dylan comments in the article, "They (existing big vendors) might think it will never happen, but new vendors in the future need to embrace open standards."

While open standards looks like an obvious move for central government, it does mask the challenge that most departments' CIOs face - that many IT projects in fact need a solution that is bespoke. Typically the department's IT team is trying to solve a problem, in some cases, one that's unique to them.

The past five years is littered with examples of where this has happened in the past. Take a recent project undertaken by the Home Office for Police. Initially built on open standards, prior to roll out it was identified as not being secure enough and a team of developers were bought in to re-write it to ensure that it achieved the security standards expected.

Then there is public sector departments, such as the NHS, who have such niche needs that it's rare that any project is 'out of the box' and based on open standards. Let's face it, the NHS is unique, there's no other institution in the world like it, so it's unlikely that an 'out of the box' solution even exists. Bespoke programmes are necessary in these areas if they're to deliver effective patient care.

That's not to say that GaaP doesn't have a place within the public services arena. Of course it does. Services that can share data on citizens to improve efficiencies and delivery will benefit from open standards, but that's not to say that the reality is that every department, IT programme or project can be simplified in this way in its delivery. What's needed is a common sense approach - bespoke when it's approach, open platform when it can - but both need to focus on the objective: to improve delivery and experience of services to UK citizens.

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