Government as a platform, tricky as it may be to pull off, is key to solving problems at population scale.
What's elegant about it is that when it works, we all make each other better off.
Ten years ago Tim O'Reilly wrote, "The idea of government as a platform applies to every aspect of government's role in society." And he noted the highway system (and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) as example number one. "Though government builds the network of roads that tie our cities together, it does not operate the factories, farms, and businesses that use the network: that opportunity is afforded to 'we the people.' Government does set policies for the use of those roads, regulating interstate commerce, levying gasoline taxes and fees on heavy vehicles that damage the roads, setting and policing speed limits, specifying criteria for the safety of bridges, tunnels, and even vehicles that travel on the roads, and performing many other responsibilities appropriate to a 'platform provider.'"
The need for public officials and the public to understand platforms is greater today. On the one hand, platform technologies in the private sector are under intense scrutiny for their ability to concentrate market power and create systemic risk (from disinformation and more). At the same time, platform thinking will be at the core of many of the infrastructure investments that come of the $1.2 trillion bill, if passed, and platform thinking could be leveraged in many of the programs states and cities will invent and deploy with their $350 billion from the American Rescue Plan to rebuild economies and shore up public health.
Four suggestions for government-built or enabled platforms:
1. Look for opportunities where government can act as a connector for other parties to a) innovate and provide services and/or b) exchange information and good/services.
2. Maximize positive network effects, where each member makes the others better off. Minimize negative network effects, where each member makes the others worse off.
3. Be intentional about getting platforms started. Look to create value for one side first; subsidize one or both sides; or bring two sides on simultaneously.
4. Share data, using APIs, etc. to enable platforms, but think beyond software. Use software, hardware, rules (laws), and processes (operating plans) to architect effective platforms.