fbpx Government as a Platform | Harvard Kennedy School

Part 2 of a series on all things digital at HKS.THE FUTURE OF CITIZENSHIP might look something like this: You flip open a laptop, log into your government portal, and from there you can check on your student loan or renew your driver’s license or access any number of other government services. The use of unique IDs keeps the system secure, and since the data (all the data—from property to dental records) belongs to you, you can see who has accessed it and why. Moreover, firewalls allow access only to those who have good reason to be there.

This isn’t science fiction though. Around the world, from Estonia to India to the United States to China, a technological vanguard is moving government from an analog to a digital space.

Digital technology in government is as old as the transistor. Computers have been used to store information and automate procedures since the 1940s; discrete systems like CompStat, used by police to monitor and respond to crime, have been around for decades, and data and social media have been employed for everything from predictive analytics (using health information to zero in on at-risk communities) to civic engagement (opening public expenditures to public view).

“Today, the way that government operates is designed around the agency, and the definition of effectiveness is the effectiveness of that agency. It’s not the effectiveness of how we reduce the time, or the transaction costs.”

Stephen Goldsmith

But the first glimpse of what more-comprehensive digital governance might look like came from local government. From Singapore to Toronto, “smart cities” cultivate almost sentient urban centers that use vast amounts of data from social media, internet-connected devices, and more to provide public services more efficiently. Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and a former mayor of Indianapolis, has been at the forefront of cities’ use of new technology to improve services and reshape the relationship between citizens and city hall. (As deputy mayor of New York City, Goldsmith helped lead the creation of the first, large city, data analytics center.)

Goldsmith’s work not only addresses the technical aspects of using data to assess needs and assign resources, it also reimagines public governance—helping municipal leaders translate technology into public value. The vast amount of distributed knowledge made possible by data collection and sharing requires rethinking the traditional, siloed, top-down model of public management. Smart cities put citizen users of public services center stage in what Goldsmith calls distributed governance.

An Illustration featuring images of students, classrooms, the Harvard Kennedy School campus, and images associated with digital technology, such as a laptop and security icons.


Smart Governance

“Today, the way that government operates is designed around the agency, and the definition of effectiveness is the effectiveness of that agency,” Goldsmith says. “It’s not the effectiveness of how we reduce the time, or the transaction costs, and the difficulty of communicating and participating with government.” Goldsmith’s Data-Smart City Solutions project, part of the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, serves as a central resource for cities interested in the use of data in local government. His efforts to broaden adoption include the Civic Analytics Network, a national network that allows urban chief data officers to share information on data use and predictive analytics.

Countries approach the new reality of digital government in different ways. Estonia and India, for example, used their relative lack of information technology infrastructure to design ambitious digital systems from scratch. The United States and Germany, where a recent HKS graduate is leading the government’s efforts, have launched dedicated units to provide digital know-how and to slowly build buy-in among government employees.

The “State of Digital Transformation” conference, organized by digital HKS, brings together these digital teams from dozens of governments. The gathering (the second one was held in June 2019) allows for discussion, debate, and sharing of experiences and best practices. Participants in the 2018 conference came to an agreement on a guiding principle: building a core government platform.

“I think there’s such an opportunity to weave the power of technology deeply into the fabric of how Kennedy School students think.”

Kathy Pham

In this “government as a platform” model, a single sign-in would allow a user to access all digital services, make payments, and update personal information. Here, too, the interests and behavior of the user would guide product and service development—a concept borrowed from the tech sector. To help understand and teach that approach, the Kennedy School brought in another digital innovator: Kathy Pham, an adjunct lecturer in public policy, was a founding product and engineering member of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) at the White House. Her experience in the private sector, which included stints with Google and IBM, has informed her thinking and teaching on product management.

“I think there’s such an opportunity to weave the power of technology deeply into the fabric of how Kennedy School students think,” Pham says.

One of Pham’s recruits at the USDS was Stephanie Nguyen MPP 2019, a user experience designer who helped revamp the design of the Medicare payment system for the U.S. government. Nguyen graduated from the Kennedy School in May but is staying in town—this summer she joined the MIT Media Lab as a computer scientist. It’s also important to understand what can go wrong. The well-chronicled failure of the HealthCare.gov website, the critical piece of infrastructure required for many Americans to access health insurance under President Obama’s health care reform, was not just a political embarrassment; it hampered the delivery of a critical service. Steven Kelman, the Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, an expert on federal computing procurement, teaches a course with Eaves on why digital projects like HealthCare.gov fail and how to prevent them from doing so.

Photos by Raychel Casey, Benn Craig, Jessica Scranton, Martha Stewart

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