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Using ‘open platforms’ could revitalise the public sector

The public sector could play a major role in improving UK plc’s position in a competitive global economy and save billions of pounds a year by adopting ‘open platform’ software systems.

According to Dr Mark Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, the public sector has the chance, through using ‘open’ systems, to take a lead in creating organisations of the future.

He uses the word ‘deverticalisation’ to highlight the continuing practice of running ‘vertically integrated’ organisations when standardising many of these processes could be done more effectively and at a lower cost.

An architect of the government’s open ICT strategy, Dr Thompson defines ‘deverticalisation’ as the questioning of traditional or ‘Taylorian’ vertically integrated organisations with old-fashioned hierarchical structures.

In an interview for Cambridge Judge Business School’s website he insists the public sector could draw from open platform-based applications used by, among others, the car industry, but the response he receives is mixed.

At one end of an entrenched market place, he says, there is marked reluctance although there is increasing evidence that some players are now becoming engaged. At the other end of the spectrum there is a small group of committed evangelists who can see the future. In the middle there are lots of confused people.

“We see people across the public sector who are aware that things must change, aware for example that in local government three to four hundred organisations are doing precisely the same thing in a variety of different ways.

“I think there’s a growing understanding that this cannot continue forever and that the taxpayer cannot afford this kind of duplication forever, but there’s uncertainty as to the best way to start. In particular, there’s uncertainty about the best way to encourage lots of previously vertically separate organisations to start doing things in the same way, which will then allow them to benefit from the economies of scale this provides.

“I think there’s a growing acceptance that something has to change and I think there’s a growing acceptance that some of the alternative platform-based models will apply to the pubic sector and generate potentially billions of savings every single year – if we can get our act together.”

Mark Thompson is a Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and is a member of the University of Cambridge’s Open Platforms and Innovation Group.