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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

The rise of government as a platform

Most government agencies would agree that digital transformation is critical to successfully serving constituents. Those who are transforming are no longer just thinking about products and services as ways to meet operational goals, but they are evaluating them for their potential to better meet customer needs.

In the evolution of digital services, agencies have tended to build custom products. As software increasingly moves to the cloud, platforms are on the rise as a faster way to deliver new and more comprehensive functionality.

Platform is the new cloud

While custom development has its place for certain projects -- and probably always will -- platform development is the IT industry’s hottest trend. In effect, it is the “new cloud,” the next frontier that is capturing the same attention and scrutiny as cloud computing did a few years ago.

Platforms help agencies avoid creating monolithic systems whose upkeep requires staff with hard-to-find skillsets and whose solutions become isolated from each other over time. Instead, small, independent “building block” functions known as microservices, accessed by application programming interfaces (APIs) such as address verification or registration deadline lookup, can be developed once and deployed across multiple products. Done right, the process helps agencies gain speed, responsiveness and products that effectively interoperate.

The platform approach can complement custom development for government, as well. When an agency’s entire IT team knows microservices have been created and are available on a platform, developers can use them to build custom products, rather than writing new code.

Why do platforms matter?

Platforms have powerful implications for government. Constituent expectations continually march forward, and platforms have the potential to shift government further toward that external, citizen-centric focus.

Platforms support what citizens believe should be possible from their city, county and state governments, offering seven key benefits:

1. Fast and flexible. With agile techniques, software features can be developed and delivered within a couple of months – or sometimes even a matter of weeks. Creating and using microservices that address specific problems and outcomes eliminates long planning cycles and reduces time to delivery.

2. Scalable. Platforms ensure that there are no constraints in the number of constituents who can use a system at a given time. Say, for example, a taxation agency’s shopping cart receives extraordinarily high use on April 15. With traditional custom development, the whole solution would have to be scaled to avoid a bottleneck during the brief period of high use. A platform approach, on the other hand, would allow the agency to scale up the shopping cart prior to Tax Day and back down after, without having to adjust other parts of the platform.

3. Extendable. Platforms extend functionality and capabilities into new areas and across agencies. A microservice that performs a commonly needed function for one agency, for instance, is likely to work as well for other agencies, expanding the features governments can offer their constituents.

4. Responsive to citizen expectations. Platforms drive convenience that aligns with the experience constituents expect. A unified search service, for example, could automatically connect government customers to the relevant agency for the business they want to conduct, rather than fording citizens to find that information on their own. 

5. Enables integration for PaaS components. Platform as a service provides cloud-based components developers can use to build services and applications online. A platform approach enables these ready-made, commercially available services to be easily integrated, saving time and money.

6. Centralizes data. A platform approach consolidates data and allows an agency to gain control over all of its information. Platforms also can pull data together to enable predictive analytics to solve problems in real time or provide insights before problems occur.

7. Supports the digital ecosystem. As government’s digital ecosystem evolves, agencies will be able link to and communicate with each other using platform-supported APIs. One way citizens will benefit is by having a single profile that is recognized and trusted across intra-agency and intrastate platforms.

Now is the time to explore platforms

Digital transformation has gone mainstream, but moving toward platform development still requires a mind shift. All government agencies should begin learning about and driving toward platforms. Those who are dedicating large percentages of budget and staff time to maintaining legacy systems may want to consider moving more quickly in that direction. The technology already exists for platforms that allow digital government services to be deployed quickly with a consistent citizen-centric experience.

Several states, for example, are participating in Gov2Go, a citizen-centric platform where all of a citizen’s government interactions with all levels of government can be accessed through a mobile application presentation of the platform information. This is just one example of a digital ecosystem linking government agencies and delivering information and services in ways that truly put the citizen first.

Other states are getting behind centralized licensing and permitting solutions. A platform can bring together licensing or permitting services from multiple state agencies. Through a platform, microservices can be configured easily to develop a solution that best fits an individual agency’s needs.

Bottom line:  IT managers should think critically about their agency’s highest value use cases for platforms, look hard at current investments and uncover more value by developing with microservices. Many states already are taking a platform approach. The case studies and proof of concept exist. Your agency could be next.

About the Author

Robert Knapp is chief operations officer at NIC Inc.

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