Government As A Platform

Updated: Aug 10

“Effective and innovative governments need to be agile, adaptable and responsive to the changing day-to-day needs of the people they serve. Today, private markets offer consumers unprecedented levels of choice and service responsiveness, and public services can (and should) be better attuned to citizen needs and wants. If governments do not keep up, they risk diminishing public trust in their capacity to deliver. Agile governments must operate at another level of complexity: they must also shape their environment on a large scale through mechanisms such as policy-making, taxation and service delivery” – WEF Future Government

Overview

In the last post in this series we talked about the trends taking us into a much more complex world that in turn requires a new paradigm and architecture to governance in the 21st century. One that moves away from the Industrial model based upon centralization and economics-of-scale that created vertically integrated organizations and mores towards a new I.T. enabled architecture that works to empower individuals to create networks cutting across domains.

The post-industrial information society of the 21st century is spawning a new form of organization, that is highly interconnected through information technology into a more open network structure. It is based more on services, the dynamics of collaboration and co-creation and is driven by self-organization. This new form of network organization is structurally adapted to operating in dynamic and complex environments.

Complex systems typically have no centralized coordination mechanism, whether we are talking about a school of fish, an entire ecosystem or a financial market, these systems are self-regulating, regulation is built into the network of relations between the agents in the form of feedback loops. The best form of governance here is no governance, that is self-regulation, this should be a fundamental paradigm and objective in governing complex systems and with the use of information technology, it is becoming an ever increasingly tangible and practical possibility.

Systems Approach

The systems approach shifts our perspective from focusing on the parts of an organization to their functioning, what we can call their service and this should give us a reconceptualization of governance away from understanding it in terms of its different organs and departments to understanding it in terms of the services it performs as such we can think of government as a type of service system.

The concept of a service system is important in the design of complex systems as it helps us shift our focus to what we should be really interested in, that is the relations between components, the whole system and most importantly the functionality of the system, because at the end of the day we don’t really want things, departments, committees or systems, what we really want is functionality, pure functionality and that is what we call a service.

By focusing on this end service we can work backward to ask what is the basics we need to deliver this or what do we need to connect to deliver this functionality, because most of these things are already out there, we just need to design new configurations, new frameworks for integrating them, to illustrate this we might take an example of a successful service system AirBnB, the components to their system, that is the people who actually provide the accommodation already existed, AirBnB just created a new platform and interface for connecting these things in order to deliver an integrated service.

Service Systems

Service systems breakdown the dichotomy between producers and consumers and enable the co-creation of solutions within a service lifecycle. In this model to government organization there is a shift from the traditional hierarchical (model built on top of society in order to regulate it in a top-down fashion) to government as the platform that provides the social infrastructure of services enabling members of civil society to co-create solutions, thus it is a much more user-centered model. With platform design, we differentiate between the different levels of abstraction to the different social services. Fundamental infrastructure services are provided by government, generic interfaces are created for intermediary partners to configure these into services for the enduser. Systems thinking and service systems allow us to take a holistic view of not just the entire organization but also how these services eventually get implemented and used.

Self-Organization

Complex systems are composed of autonomous agents, global coordination within these systems is an emergent property that derives from the self-organization of elements on the local level, this means there is no centralized mechanism for controlling the output to the system. Within this new paradigm the nature and definition of governance would change towards the function of governments as; creating a context that enables elements to co-create solutions through networks, whiles designing feedback connections that self-regulate the system, with the ultimate aim of creating systemically efficient, resilience and sustainable societies.

Central to the industrial model was the capacity to harness relations of competition regulating the organization by building a hierarchy that balances the interest of each level against those above it, creating fixed roles and chain of command. In collaborative organizations, individuals function autonomously, constantly interacting with each other to define the vision and aims, maintain a common understanding of requirements and monitoring the work that needs to be done. Roles and responsibilities are not predetermined but rather emerge from individuals’ self-organizing activities and are constantly in flux. Similarly, projects are generated everywhere in the enterprise, sometimes even from outside affiliates. Key decisions are made collaboratively, on the spot, and on the fly. Because of this, knowledge, power, and intelligence are spread through the organization, making it uniquely capable of quickly recovering and adapting to the loss of any key enterprise component.

Co-Creation: Central to the idea of collaboration is co-creation, as with all organizations the mass of resources lie outside of the government agency and learning how to use this, how to create and manage networks that span seamlessly from inside the organization to its exterior is key, this is about cutting across boundaries and departments with processes that span the full lifecycle from producer to consumer in order to create synergies between both.

Self-Regulating Systems: I.T. is also enabling new possibilities for self-regulating systems of organization that can be harnessed for the administration of the public domain, this means using information and connectivity to inform people about the consequences of their actions and make this information publicly available in order to create feedback loops. Information feedback loops are the mechanisms of self-regulation and with information becoming ever more pervasive it can be harnessed as a powerful tool for creating systems that balance themselves. Building communities that can manage themselves in the age of information is about building social platforms where people’s profiles reflect their actions and these profiles are open for all to see, making peer-to-peer social interaction a strong regulator, the information society is more social than the mechanistic world of the industrial age and the dynamics of sociability is a new method that can be harnessed for the management of the civic domain.

Networked Organisations

In the last decade, the terms ‘network’ or ‘networking’ have appeared ever more often in discussions about the current or future management and policy of the modern government. The industrial model to public administration is of course built around vertically integrated silos, a domain is specified (like security or international relations) and a hierarchy is built up within that domain spanning from the front lines to top management with information flowing up and down this vertical line.

The reality though of how most end-users use the system and how end services get delivered looks much more like a network, if we think about something like airport security, it is a complex partnership among airlines, airport authorities, and federal, state, and local governments, it cuts across many different departments and functions within different organizations. To take another example we might think of a person relocating to a new country or state, they will need to interact with a multiplicity of different services and different departments for this to happen but ultimately what they want is bundled configurations of services that meet their needs, in reality they are left facing a system where these different services are distributed out across (or we might say locked up within) may different domains.

Within the private sector, I.T. is enabling a new form of service provision that is highly customer focused and wrapped around their needs, Forrest Research calls it the ‘Age of the consumer’ saying ‘In this age of the customer, the only sustainable competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers’. The network approach to the provision of government services requires an unbundling to the vertically integrated and homogeneous organization of service provision in order to make them evaluable for reconfiguration within networks.

The network architecture is a much more flexible and most importantly modular approach, it uses a service oriented architect SOA to be able to catalog the services that the organization provides, gives them a universal descriptor and makes them available for use through some common network, this network can then be accessed by the end-user with a single interface(such as a mobile app) through which they can configure the different services into processes that meet their particular needs. The rise of networked organization doesn’t necessarily mean the end of departments, departments can be very effective at focusing expertise on producing a particular service and it is a natural configuration for the internal workings of an organization, but increasingly the components to the organization and its services need to be loosely coupled into modules that can be configured and reconfigured through different types of networks to meet the needs of the organization or end-user with a services oriented architecture being the design pattern that best suits this.

Dynamic & Adaptive

In this world of uncertainty, change and volatility that characterizes the 21st century the only response is to prepare the organization by making it resilient and adaptable to change, in volatile and uncertain environments that are subject to systemic risk it is no longer the accumulation of a mass of resources that ensures survival, but the capacity to adapt to a changing environment, organizations need to be agile and sufficiently diversified to ensure their resilience and sustainability, this means changing the core structure of public institutions from one that is static to one that is dynamic.

Adaptive and evolutionary organizations are Agile, within agile project development requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement and encourages rapid and flexible response to change. It is a conceptual framework that focuses on frequently delivering small increments of working solutions.

“In a business context, agility is the ability of an organization to rapidly adapt to market and environmental changes in productive and cost-effective ways. The agile enterprise is an extension of this concept, referring to an organization that utilizes key principles of complex adaptive systems and complexity science to achieve success. One can say that business agility is the outcome of Organizational intelligence” – Wikipedia

The agile enterprise strives to make change a routine part of organizational life to reduce or eliminate the organizational trauma that paralyzes many organizations attempting to adapt to new environments. Because change is perpetual, the agile enterprise is able to nimbly adjust to and take advantage of emerging opportunities. The agile enterprise views itself as an integral component of a larger system whose activities produce a ripple effect of change both within the enterprise itself and the broader system. 

Agile methods integrate planning with execution allowing an organization to “search” for an optimal ordering of work tasks and to adjust to changing requirements. The major causes of chaos on a project include an incomplete understanding of project components, incomplete understanding of component interactions and changing requirements. Sometimes requirements change as a greater understanding of the project components unfolds over time. Requirements also change due to changing needs and wants of the stakeholders. The agile approach allows a team or organization of collective trust, competence and motivation to implement successful projects quickly by only focusing on a small set of details in any change iteration. This is in contrast to non-agile in which all the details necessary for completion are generally taken to be foreseeable and have equal priority inside of one large iteration.

Key to being able to operate sustainably within dynamic environments is placing change as the center of the organization, building evolutionary mechanisms into the heart of the enterprise, evolution is not a mysterious process that takes place only in nature it is a key part to the design of adaptive systems, it involves the creation of variation (incubators, R&D labs etc), allowing these different types to adapt to their environment( co-created services, user-generated solutions) and then performing selection on them(feedback and rating mechanism). By harnessing this basic mechanism we can create evolutionary organizations that evolve and adapt to stay relevant.

Summary

In this post, I have presented a reconceptualization for the architecture of governance in order for it to meet the more complex environment that organizations operate within in the 21st century. Using complex systems theory we have leveraged some of its basic principles to outline an alternative IT-enabled governance framework that can be summaries within a few key takeaway points.

  1. It is services-oriented seeing governance as the social infrastructure provider of core services, a platform model that flips the traditional hierarchical model the other way up, no longer managing society in a top-down fashion but now the enabling context and structure that provides users with the tools and support to create their own solutions. 

  2. It is a framework built upon peer-to-peer relations that tries to harness collaboration, a premise that the best form of governance is self-regulation by connecting people to each other, allowing for the free flow of information and creating collaborative platforms that use feedback and rating mechanisms within peer networks. 

  3. It recognizes the need for a more distributed architecture to government enterprises, a service-oriented architecture where loosely coupled services can be bundled and re-bundled into different configurations through networks created by the end-user according to their needs (implemented by cloud computing platforms and mobile technologies). 

  4. Lastly, in response to the VUCA world of the 21st century effective and innovative governments need to be agile as they shift from a monolithic structure based on static departments and roles, towards a network structure that can be dynamically configured according to changing events and harnesses evolutionary mechanisms in order to build fundamental change into the system.

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