The Center for Digital Strategy, Innovation and Strategy (DIGITS) at the University of Maryland, for instance, estimated that the Facebook app economy generated over $12 billion in economic value in 2011 by allowing third-party developers to build and host their applications.
The question is, can the government save money by adapting and adopting platforms as a model for doing business? Here's how it might work.
Adapt, Adopt Industry Platforms
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies have launched initiatives like Cloud First and Shared First to help reduce duplication and promote the use of shared resources, thereby bringing down the overall cost of government services delivery. However, change is slow, given that organizations have traditionally developed systems and IT solutions for specific problems.
[ What happens if your project spirals out of control and crashes? Learn Lessons From A Failed Federal IT Project. ]
For example, Amazon.com was primarily an online bookstore that then transformed itself into a platform that covers retail, media and computing on-demand, fostering multiple ecosystems. Clearly this did not happen overnight -- Amazon insiders talk about the "Jeff Bezos edict of 2002," where he mandated the complete transformation of Amazon systems to a service-oriented platform.
What if the General Services Administration (GSA) could transform itself from a "contracts catalog and services provider" to a "GSA-as-a-service platform" that allows other agencies to host and build their applications and systems? Almost every agency has a contracts and procurement system that performs generally the same basic functions. These costs could be dramatically reduced if all of these agencies could build, operate and maintain their own applications on a common platform run by GSA.
There are many more such ideas that can be adapted and adopted from industry. For example what if GSA's Public Buildings Service, which is the landlord for the federal civilian government, provided a platform that shares (in a secure manner) information about the building to other agencies that are tenants, such that they can integrate it into their internal facilities or HR business applications for detecting fire exits, conference room locations, etc.?
Every agency needs that kind of information and probably spends significant amounts of resources to build and deploy such solutions. On similar lines, what if the Department of the Treasury looked at a service like Plaid, which provides secure access to banking data to allow companies to automate accounting, budgeting and expense-management functions.
It's not so far-fetched. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is looking to become a platform for providing mobile and cloud solutions for Department of Defense customers. The examples described above are very simplistic and just scratch the surface of what is possible. But it's worth asking, how much money would it save government by leveraging the platform model?
Driving Digital Innovation
Clearly, these are big ideas, and making them work will take strong visionary leadership that appreciates the power of technology and its ability to make us more efficient. Leaders like Bill Gates, who launched Microsoft's big shift from the PC area into the Internet-era through the "Internet Tidal Wave" memo in 1995. Jeff Bezos started transforming Amazon into a platform through his 2002 edict.
We have visionary leaders at agencies like GSA and the Department of the Interior embarking on ambitious programs to change the status quo. Dan Tangherlini at the GSA views technology as a strategic tool for driving change and delivering services in new ways. GSA's forays into shared office space, teleworking, cloud email and other such initiatives show an enlightened leadership that is able to conceptualize and execute big ideas.
Similarly, the leadership at Department of Interior is putting in place a foundational cloud infrastructure to enable innovation and drive down cost of services delivery. "Cloud platforms can help us break down organizational silos and enable innovation and sharing across the enterprise," says Dr. Jerry Johnston, geospatial information officer at the U.S. Department of Interior.
A key part to driving such change is quantifying the benefits of a platform-based approach. The DIGITS Center at the University of Maryland developed a model to estimate the economic value created by the Facebook app economy. This study can serve as a basis for estimating the savings that could be generated by using platforms that enable agencies to build their own applications but use common foundational services. Innovative Silicon Valley startups such as Apcera are building software that enables enterprises to deploy common foundational services that can be leveraged across organizational boundaries while adhering to enterprise security and compliance protocols.
"We're solving some of the hardest problems in enterprise IT related to identity management, compliance, security and availability," said Derek Collison, founder and CEO of Apcera. "These factors drive up application costs and make maintenance difficult. Through our enabling platform, enterprises can dramatically increase productivity and efficiency."
Platforms instead of application silos can help transform enterprise operations and perhaps help reduce the cost of services enablement and delivery. It's worth exploring.
Learn more about how organizations like GSA and the Department of Interior are looking at platform innovations at the Digital Innovation Forum on Oct. 11, conducted by the DIGITS Center and sponsored by InformationWeek.