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Sep 2018 | The Future of Public Service Delivery

GOVERNMENT AS A PLATFORM: PUBLIC SERVICE DELIVERY IN THE DIGITAL WORLD
ALEX BENAY, GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

 

Excerpted from Government Digital by Alex Benay © 2018 by Alex Benay. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press

 

The digital revolution has made one thing abundantly clear: the world has shifted. Platform economies have transformed many sectors: accommodations with Airbnb, transportation with Uber, retail with Alibaba and Amazon, social media with Facebook and others, entertainment with Netflix and Spotify — the list goes on. The world is now dominated by platforms leveraging the interconnectivity of a planet that has seen a dramatic increase in mobility thanks to Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and soon, 5G. The digital revolution is creating exponential growth all around us, and it represents a tremendous opportunity for governments around the world to fundamentally change the way they deliver services to citizens. 

Simply uttering the word change in government can be difficult. But change is possible. It is all around us if we choose to see it. What follows is an example of change that was unavoidable and in the end successful. It was driven by necessity after a traumatic event: the full closure of more than 40 percent of the operations of a government crown corporation overnight. Consequently, the need for a fundamental change in its business model became imperative for the institution.

 

THE INGENIUM CASE

Ingenium is a Canadian crown corporation that houses the country’s three national innovation museums: the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. It has about 225 employees, ranging from historians and curators to information technology staff and exhibition interpreters, as well as overall management professionals. Ingenium has three distinct sites, all located in the Ottawa area. By global national museum standards, it is a very small institution in a medium-sized country. One of its biggest assets was the data and content it held within its walls: hundreds of thousands of artifacts, tens of thousands of archives, and much more content in various forms such as pictures and blueprints of planes, trains, and cars. Even with all this content and data, however, Ingenium’s approach remained traditional and linear in design. It sold its pictures, developed its historical assessments in isolation behind closed doors, and didn’t encourage staff to speak publicly about their work. It was like any other public institution around the world. As a result, its reach was historically below 10 million per year.

During the 2015–16 fiscal year, a significant strategy entitled “Digital Citizenship at Ingenium” was created with the goal of completely changing the business model of the institution. After the creation of this strategy, a shift occurred and the organization began deploying digital-first mindsets to much of its work. The objective was to make Ingenium’s network of private-sector partners, other museums, and academics into a powerful ecosystem. The goal was exponential growth of the establishment’s reach versus linear program delivery. As a result, Ingenium became the world’s first public institution to truly work in the open by adopting an “open-by-default” policy, which meant that all data and records were released within two hours of creation, whether they were drafts, final versions, or even raw data. The organization unleashed the power of the digital document-and-records system it had bought years ago and automated the release of everything (with the exception of human-resources records and personal information). Management pressed for a top-down and bottom-up culture change. So Ingenium began aggressively seeking opinions, input, and collaboration.

The outcome was the creation of the Open Heritage portal where documents would be released in real time upon creation. Months later, tens of thousands of documents were circulated publicly: draft historical assessments, exhibition plans, and other raw content was exposed for the world to see. Several naysayers had professed that there were too many policy restrictions to do this, that there would be too many complaints because government documents need to be final and complete before “publishing” on the Internet. All of these false risks were proven invalid. No complaints occurred and, in fact, what did happen was a dramatic boost in the museums’ accessibility not only to the region and country but to the entire world. Being a digital government organization automatically means empowering people as global digital citizens. Journalists, historians in universities, and everyday history buffs began interacting with the institution in new ways, often discovering the museums for the first time.

Another breakthrough in implementing a more “platform”-based approach to government materialized when a partnership was forged between SE3D Interactive, a small Toronto mobile gaming firm, and Ingenium. The objective was to share the costs of the production of new mobile games and divide the proceeds with this new private sector partner. Ingenium knew nothing about the video game sector or developing its own video games. In a traditional linear government system, creating its own games would have cost Ingenium hundreds of thousands of dollars and the risks would have been astronomical. But by releasing content to the public, engaging with partners such as SE3D, and developing new, digital models, it was able to launch its first game for under CAD$25,000. The gaming company 3D-scanned First World War planes from the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and created a series of Great War flying games in which real air battles were re-enacted and the lives of pilots were honoured in an innovative digital format on Android and IOS platforms for a fraction of the cost of a traditional exhibition.

In the span of two years, three mobile games had been produced. Each of the games were downloaded in more than 180 countries in a matter of weeks, reaching hundreds of thousands of people globally. Ingenium also began generating new revenues for itself as a result of partnering with SE3D. In addition, the museums stopped selling their pictures and data and instead promoted economic growth in the gaming industry, revolutionizing their business model in the process. The organization started generating partnership revenue through video games, not picture sales, unleashing the power of its content to drive innovation, growth, and income not only for itself but for other parties, as well. While certainly nothing replaces the “real thing” — people seeing the museum’s airplanes in person — what Ingenium accomplished was to change its business model. It didn’t stop offering “the real thing,” but complemented its artifacts with digital approaches, not merely digitization of existing methods. The games reached thousands of people who would never come to Ottawa and permitted many to actually experience the planes, battles, and history from anywhere in the world.

Ingenium’s digital journey continues. Today the institution is investigating how it can produce 4K documentaries to engage an even broader audience. By releasing more content, connecting online, talking to more partners, and creating an ecosystem of delivery as opposed to a linear delivery model, the crown corporation is able to find new spheres of influence and new partners.

 

EXPANDING THE MODEL TO ALL OF GOVERNMENT

Critics will claim that Ingenium is a small crown corporation and therefore what it accomplished was easier. But these are hollow excuses. Let’s focus on successful stories such as Ingenium and figure out how to employ what they did on a larger and arguably, more complicated scale.

What if governments today released their content by default? Imagine a world where all science is done in the open for everyone to contribute to. The power of our interconnected world could truly be brought to bear and the discoveries would no doubt occur at a much faster pace. What if governments, once this content is released, enabled public servants to truly engage in online dialogue? If governments are to be truly digital and participate in the exponential revolution, they must not only release content en masse in real time but also allow public servants to develop digital ties around them to operate more quickly. This can happen through the adoption of “social” government habits and practices in real-time dialogue. Governments will never be experts in artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud, and 5G, since those technologies are evolving much too rapidly. The only solution is to create a platform where content is available in real time, experts in government work with specialists in other sectors, and platforms and architectures actually enable collaboration.

What if governments evolve and enable the interconnected societies in which we live to amplify their outputs? To do this means more third-party service providers should be seen as acceptable alternatives. What if we “app-ify” government services and provide multiple options for citizens to engage with? Releasing more content, enabling public servants to collaborate more freely and in real time, and redesigning how governments do business could lead to a very different reality for public service delivery.

Imagine if the lessons learned from Ingenium’s experience were applied to larger institutions. What would be the impact on our economies? What if governments the world over become in tune with the Internet of Things (IoT) and begin designing services and programs to be distributed on any platform on any device? This possibility will require a fundamental shift in business models from linear and analogue to exponential and digital. It will require governments to see themselves as platforms. The world is interconnected, platform-based, and growing exponentially. If a few small museums can grasp this concept, governments around the globe absolutely can and should “get it”, and once they do – the possibilities are boundless.

 

ALEX BENAY was appointed the Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada, effective April 3, 2017. Prior to this appointment, Alex was the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation since July 2014. From 2011 to 2014, Alex was Vice-President of Government Affairs and Business Development at OpenText. He has played a leadership role in Canada’s digital industry, as well as in promoting the global shift to digital in organizations such as the G20, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Olympics. Alex has a B.A. in History from the University of Ottawa and a master’s degree in History. He was recently named to Apolitical’s international list of the 100 most influential people in digital government.