Public sector platforms: a promising way forward for societies

Less than 1% of workers are working in digital platforms, so why we talk so much about them? Because platforms illustrate the democratising impact of the change of work to the society and show the way forward towards a more inclusive, efficient society.  

Indeed, the discussion surrounding skills and future of work has been partially misdirected: oftentimes, the discussion surrounds around new skills such as programming, while the main impact of the next phase of digitalization is more equal access to work. Frankly, it’s weird that this discussion is a bit under the radar because this is also what happened during the previous great techno-social surge – during the industrialization, many protected jobs became easy to do for everyone.

Currently, new tools, such as voice-controlled user interfaces, better search and video instructions, allow ever larger part of the global population to be able to do tasks that were traditionally protected via education or experience. This democratization of work through the disappearance of work barriers is absolutely a devastating turn to those workers who have previously enjoyed the salary surplus of the protected tasks. Not only do they face competition from their less educated countrymen, but also from the global New-collar class.

Nevertheless, this disruption is an outcome of globalization and it will eventually lead to a more productive and enjoyable world for all. The keyword here is “eventually” — we cannot claim that the inherit delays in restructuring employment and work wouldn’t cause individual tragedies. It’s likely that these tragedies hinder the change and increase the demand for the traditionalist “back to the great” narrative.

The other option is to go full fling towards the new opportunities. The difficult fact is that there is no middle ground.

In fact, Europe is now in a situation where there is a collective choice to be made: either limit the impact of the change by protectionism and make Europe a globally insignificant back land or cherish the change by brave, progressive policies and institutional changes. I prefer the latter option: the rest of this text makes an effort to illustrate especially from the public-sector perspective how and why significant changes are indeed required.

New general-purpose technologies are useless if there is no remarkable reorientation of public institutions 

Venezuelan researcher Carlota Perez describes how throughout times general purpose technologies have gone through a set of phases before we have managed to get everything out of the said technologies. Typically, a new technology starts to build up tensions with the old institutions when the apparent benefits of the technology are becoming clearer. Institutional changes are needed to solve these tensions.

For example, when industrial mass production became more common, it caused several tensions: Firstly, the production was centralized in cities but cities were horrible places to live in England around the 1820s. Modern city planning was successfully adopted to solve these issues. Secondly, the centralized production allowed the production of nonessentials to large groups of people but workers did not have the subsistence to purchase anything but necessities. One could claim that the welfare state was a solution to this problem.

Unfortunately, it took 60 years to do these rearrangements by public institutions, leading to despair and a loss of a generation.

There are many institutional changes that are required to get everything out of the later stages of digitalization (hyperconnected society, artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc.). However, for the public sector, the most important transition is the transition from “New public management” to “Digital era governance”.

New public management guided government organizations to efficient but budget lead, siloed approaches: large organizations were divided to smaller groups, competition inside the public sector was increased, a lot of work was done via tenders and there were monetary reward systems for leaders and groups. The approach emphasized doing things right, while sometimes having a blind spot in doing the right things – at least from the whole of government perspective. Because of this, digital tools don’t work well with the New public management paradigm: too often similar apps and productions are produced in neighbouring municipalities, APIs are non-existent or non-standardized and common goal is completely missing. The benefits of digitalization come from various network effects and victorious loops that are not visible when one is only looking at digital practices in each government agency and municipality individually.

Digital era governance is a governing paradigm that emphasizes common cross-governmental goals in digitalization preferably through mutual, centrally organized data politics, full digitalization of government interaction and making the citizen-centred government actually happen via approaching the citizen-government interactions through life-events. Following these footsteps, the government can operate as a platform for good life while also taking a role as a “platform for platforms” for commercial platforms. I’ll broaden the argument for all of the aforementioned five points in their respective chapters below.

Citizen-centred government via life-events

Human-centricity is not a new governmental goal, quite the opposite. But digitalization allows realizing it in ways that were previously unimaginable. In this context, human-centric refers to reorganizing government services to all-encompassing citizen services. In the first phase, this means one desk service promises such as the Finnish way of offering all environmental permits from one place. Next phases are wide citizen accounts, such as the Finnish service portal. The main goal in organizing the services in the right way is to build them not around governmental agencies, but instead around life events and business events: by identifying the places in citizens’ lives where government interaction is required, can the government organize optimal and wide services to help people, even proactively.

In the final phase of the citizen-centred digitalization, this approach leads to merging of different government organizations, moving the lines where government responsibilities end and truly citizen-first government.

Common goals for digitalization via data politics

Common goals for digitalization are required because of the system requirements from the human-centric government. When services for the citizens are offered as holistically as possible, the government bureaus cannot have different goals. The main tools to understand the common goals are 1) common data government and mutual analytics services, where citizen-first services are developed from the data stream perspective and 2) local service delivery. The common goal is thus based on centralized data and analytics and strong local coordination and feedback.

Full digitalization of government

Full digitalization does not mean that everyone needs to use a web page to use government services — quite the opposite! The increased sensors and RPA allows designing government services that allow digital footprints without extensive reporting and with the interface that each citizen feels the most confident to use.

Nevertheless, the digital era governance cannot happen if there are services that don’t leave a digital trace. Many benefits are lost if there is no data. Digital by default strategies help and enable developing digital services in the right way. Another helpful approach is to build common data sharing funnels, such as the X-road in Estonia.

Government as a platform and as a metaplatform

A platform is a digital tool to help various stakeholders to interact. Many interactions are within the goal of the government.

Government as a platform combines the three characteristics of the digital era governance: human centricity, full digitalization and common goals. By combining these three characteristics, and including feedback loops for measuring their success, it reaches three goals: efficiency, inclusion and institutional change. This means that what I’m now describing is a holistic approach to governance, where public sector collaborates with its clients to end up to better, mutually defined goals.

Currently, most public organizations are investing money and resources to build their own digital systems. They seek to make sure that they can at least to some extent to reply to their clients’ growing concerns and expectations regarding the usability and easiness of service. Their investments are, however, very small when compared to the global platform behemoths. These large companies are currently building a global infrastructure for participation, knowledge sharing and service delivery. Because of it, they are able to collect immense data streams that help them to optimize supreme analytics (AI) systems that allow them to provide much better, personalized service to citizens than what governments are able to provide.

How does the citizen relationship to governments shape up when these platform companies are able to provide much better solutions to preventive health care or cheaper solutions to education than what the current public sector can provide? How can we maintain the legitimacy of the public sector in this kind of a situation? And one might ask: why should we? Where the correct reply is that while platform companies can provide better service to their clients, their clients differ from the clients of the public sector. Public sector is concerned about all the people, including the next generations and the underserved.  What is our ability to guide the platform companies to include these clients as well?

There are very few good proposals for the role of the public sector in this perspective. Nevertheless, it seems clear that public sector has to operate as a regulatory platform for these platforms to make sure that we include all the clients to their offering. From this perspective, to do governance means to do a sort of metaprogramming to build the limits of acceptable behaviour for the platforms. This metaprogramming has to take into account at least:

  • API politics
  • access to platforms
  • transparency of algorithms
  • ownership of data streams
  • ownership of goods on platforms
  • local value production (or lack of it)
  • taxation
  • new capabilities
  • worker rights
  • participant rights

By guiding the platform governance, governments can guarantee the basic rights of the citizens. There is, however, for the government much to learn from the service delivery and the operational logic of the platform companies. This operational logic includes the most important promise for the public sector: in the best case, the public sector can indeed gravely increase their services with the new data and analytics capabilities and platform practices.

This blog is contributed by senior expert Johannes Koponen. Follow Johannes on Twitter

Header image: Martin Sanchez

Article image: Michael D Beckwith