Derek Summary Notes for Transforming Government for the 21st Century

These are the summary notes I took while reading Transforming Government for the 21st Century by Andrew Bennett & Chris Yiu. They are an attempt to capture the key points from the report that resonated the most with me. I share them here as an attempt to do my research out loud and make it easier for others to engage with the excellent content found in this report.

This article focuses on 3 themes:

  • Purposeful Government
  • Enabling Infrastructure
  • Responsive Institutions

Given my research interest, I will focus on Enabling Infrastructure but recommend interested people dig into the other two themes on their own time.

Under Enabling Infrastructure the authors highlighted a series of recommendations:

  • Provide a decentralized electronic identity system
  • Promote use of API’s
  • Centralize data function in government
  • Set out guidelines to underpin a platform operating mode

Digital Infrastructure

The authors suggest that the government has been mainly focusing on the first two tiers but the real potential lies in government serving as a platform for society — I agree. “ In this model, software platforms and policies (guidelines) enable activity across society, not just in government.”(p. 34) The shift here is from government providing services, to instead creating the conditions which enable anyone to create services while serving as a floor to ensure certain standards in accessibility, transparency, accountability and quality. “Dr Filer has suggested that this sort of work could be carried out by the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, a body set up by the government and led by independent experts to advise on how to maximise the benefits of data-enabled technologies.” (p. 36)

Partnership is key to achieving an effective GaaP though governments need to be careful to diversify and not just be captured by the usual big tech suspects. “Governments should be comfortable with businesses operating for profit, but also expect them to support, rather than erode, the purpose and values of the public sector.” (p. 37)

“(I)n a data-driven world, policymakers should think of software and data as a new paradigm of infrastructure that governments ought to provide to enable the wider modern economy and society.” (p. 40)

One of the best quotes I have come across: ““a platform is something that aggregates demand and disaggregates supply”(74).” (p. 40) (its a quote they reference in the article)

“Providing these platforms to all levels of government and the wider economy would realise the opportunity of the GaaP operating model by enabling an ecosystem of companies, charities and government teams to deliver to the rising expectations of public services.” (p. 41)

Data Governance

Governments have a ton of data, that for the most part is being underutilized. By organizing and opening this data they will not only provide far better services but also unlock whole markets for entrepreneurship. There does need to be a balance between openness, privacy and security. Huge financial benefit. “A study commissioned by the Danish government estimated that the direct financial benefits of spending £1.72 million ($2.24 million) on creating an open dataset of unique property identifiers was £53.2 million ($69.4 million) for the period 2005–2009.” (p. 42)

They suggest that by centralizing the data sets, it allows for greater consistency and quality from having data specialists manage it. Also the huge value of aggregated data.

True backbone of digital government rest is having an effective and trusted system for digital ID.

There are lots of models for this, an interesting one is self-sovereign identity. Here instead of the government or private sector holding a person’s identity (or their data), it is held and managed by the individual themselves using some form of encrypted digital wallet. This would also allow the individual to share only the pieces of information they want with service providers. The authors give a walk through of what this could look like on p.46–47.

Huge savings can also be found if national governments share their infrastructure with local governments. “The authors of the 2018 Digitizing Government report conservatively estimated that making common software platforms open to local government in England could save £5.2 billion ($6.7 billion) annually.” (p. 49) Not to mention the wealth of data held at the local level.

Digital Society

Technology is also transforming the potential of how democracy works. The emergent and dynamic nature of the modern world is out of step with the classic models of representative democracy. New forms of participatory democracy are starting to become more common and necessary. For example, the UK’s Innovation in Democracy Programme.

Personal Reflections

  • Liked how they framed the government as a market framer on behalf of public good. Right now it feels like the government is very meek in the tech space, coming in as an advocate for citizens and shaping the market rules to push for public benefit is an interesting reframe.
  • There was no mention of open source… this seemed to be a big blind spot.
  • Was intrigued by the authors section on participatory democracy, I want to dig deeper into this. I think it is one of the most interesting and untapped aspects of GaaP.

Community Animator, Democratic Reformer and Social Innovation Experimenter. Currently working for the Digital Collaboration Division in the Government of Canada