Results of high-speed electrical and optical diagnostics are used as a basis to discuss a new surface flashover model. Outgassing, caused by electron stimulated desorption, is found to play a crucial role in the temporal flashover development. Dielectric unipolar surface flashover under vacuum is experimentally characterized by a three-phase development, which covers a current range from 10-4 A to 100 A. Phase one comprises a fast (several nanoseconds) buildup of a saturated secondary electron avalanche reaching current levels of 10 to 100 mA. Phase two is associated with a slow current amplification reaching currents in the Ampere level within typically 100 ns. The final phase is characterized by a fast current rise up to the impedance-limited current on the order of 100 A. The development during phase two and three is described by a zero-dimensional model, where electron-induced outgassing leads to a Townsend-like gas discharge above the surface. This is supported by time-resolved spectroscopy that reveals the existence of excited atomic hydrogen and ionic carbon before the final phase. The feedback mechanism toward a self-sustained discharge is due to space charge leading to an enhanced field emission from the cathode. A priori unknown model parameters, such as outgassing rate and gas density buildup above the surface, are determined by fitting calculated results to experimental data. The significance of outgassing is also discussed with a view to microwave surface flashover.