Sunday, March 27th, 2011
Pretty much every level of government is broke is about right now. So hard questions are being asked about what services are essential for government to provide, whether anyone wants to be asking them or not.
One thing that needs to be looked at is different ways of structuring the way the government does things in order to leverage the capabilities that the market can bring to bear today in ways that would not have been possible before, particularly in the realm of technology, where the time is ripe for this.
Thinking about the city as platform concept, the model is that rather than having the government directly provide the entire service stack, it only provides the platform on which private enterprise delivers a lot of the value.
Think about CTA bus tracker for example. This is a very cool app that lets you find out when the next bus is coming in Chicago. It’s more or less a necessity now in an era of service reductions.
After the CTA put out this application, someone reverse engineered the protocol to determine the API that would allow third party applications to tap into the bus tracker data. At that point the CTA opened things up and published an official API.
I think this sequence illustrates an important point at about the traditional way of thinking, which is that the government provides the integrated service stack top to bottom. The ability of others to tap in at any layer other than the top was added later. But imagine if the CTA had designed bus tracker as a platform up front? If it had done that, it may never have needed to design the end user application in the first place. Others may have built the app for them. That could have saved the CTA some money.
This is sort of the type of model I’d like to see start evolving. Get the government out of the service layer, where it isn’t very good anyway. While bus tracker isn’t bad, most government web sites suck out loud. The Cook County Treasurer site where you pay your property taxes doesn’t even work with Firefox, for example. The Illinois Department of Employment Security notoriously only works with Internet Explorer. The private sector is much better at deploying technology, and certainly much better at finding the types of applications that will actually generate value to users and delivering that in an intelligent way.
A great example of this in my view is the IRS. They probably do still have their own e-file site, but they’ve also got a system other providers can tap into. This lets people like Intuit with their Turbo Tax product deliver a superior interface and make it easier and better for taxpayers to comply with their obligations.
The CTA’s open fare media project is a great step in this direction. They asked themselves what they were doing in the proprietary payments business, and came up with the answer that they shouldn’t be. They are looking to leverage all the same payment technologies used by everybody else and simply get out of that business.
Maybe government agencies will always need some sort of an official web site for various things, but to the extent that more and more technology (and potential other matters as well) can simply be devolved to the private sector, which is better at it anyway, money can be saved while delivering a superior citizen experience.