The case for open digital architecture: reducing costs, providing better services
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In the previous chapter we made the case for an increase in collaboration and reuse between local authorities – and noted that the lack of open standards and a common architecture made achieving this difficult . Here are three typical examples of how these difficulties are experienced across the UK:
- A local authority creates an excellent planning service. A neighbouring authority wants to reuse this service. To do so, however, it would need to rework and customize the service completely: not simply to match its citizens’ local needs, but also to integrate the system into its own unique systems architecture. Due to the cost, the local authority remains on its old service.
- A community group uses open data to address a problem in one authority area. Seeking to repeat its success elsewhere, it turns to a nearby authority – only to find that their open data is in a different format. The community group lacks the skills to change this new format, and therefore fails to expand its scheme.
- A small business creates an innovative solution to a problem faced by many local authorities across the UK. It would like to bring this solution to the market as a true, multi-tenanted cloud service: that is, a digital service which multiple authorities access and adopt from a single common hub. Because of the variations between each authority’s pre-existing computer systems, however, the small business is instead forced to wait until it can achieve the scale to employ multiple teams to customize its solution individually for every authority. At best, it is likely only to provide its solution to a handful of authorities.
Similar examples can be described within central government, or between central and local government:
- A government department creates a new service to handle inbound requests from citizens for passport applications. If a successful open systems architecture were in place, another department could simply reuse this for handling driving licence applications. Instead, because there is no common architecture, it pours time and resources into building its own
- A local authority wants to launch a new service that adheres to data sharing principles, but that needs to link to data from both central and local government. It finds, however, that these two sets of data use different unique identifiers and thus cannot be linked.
- A government department builds an identity verification service to allow people to verify their identity when raising passport application requests; 12 other government departments and 443 local authorities create their own similar services, every single one working more-or-less from scratch.
The last example is something that the current government is trying to resolve with the new Identity Assurance service, GOV.UK Verify. Once it is complete, this service will be able to be used by any public body to verify identity . Rather than all public sector organisations building their own solution they can reuse what has already been built .
Self-evidently, this is an excellent idea, and the Identity Assurance service is a perfect example of the type of benefits that an open architecture can provide.
A common problem is being solved once, and the resulting solution is then being used many times. Once it is live, the Identity Assurance programme will create an open standard interface and a reusable component that the whole sector can use. It will reduce costs, increase interoperability and make people’s lives easier.
In other words, the standardised approach that a shared open architecture brings is absolutely essential if government digital services are to approach anything like their full potential. It will reduce the time to launch new public services; it will enable high-quality components to be used and re-used across multiple public services with maximum ease; it will reduce the risk of government and local authorities being locked-in to proprietary components, or to particular suppliers; and it will eliminate needless repetition and reduce costs.
 This chapter only gives a summary overview of what architecture and platform means. For those readers wishing to understand in more detail how these concepts can work in a government context we would recommend the following further reading: Tim O’Reilly “Government as a Platform”; Alan W. Brown, Jerry Fishenden, Mark Thompson “Digitising Government” and “Digital Government at Work” by Ian McLoughlin, Rob Wilson and Mike Martin
 In fact it goes even further than this. The partners in the identity assurance service can also verify identity to organisations outside of the public sector. This opens up a realm of possibilities for the private and third sectors that are outside the scope of this review.
 The identity assurance service has an economic model to handle cost transfer to the partners
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