APIs, shared services can reshape, modernize government technology

The size and scope of the federal government’s information technology landscape only continues to grow and in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to change. In the Federal Chief Information Officers Council’s latest study, the current state of government IT is described as monolithic. And, it is not meant as a compliment.

While the CIO Council paints a somewhat dim picture of the current  state of federal government technology, it also offers hope for the future in the form of application programming interfaces.

APIs and the path to agility

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the digital glue that allow applications to talk to each other and exchange data. APIs can connect applications of all shapes and sizes, empowering government agencies to rapidly modernize their legacy systems and enable agile development. In doing so, agencies can more easily and quickly adopt modern technologies, such as cloud- or SaaS-based applications. Furthermore, APIs enable agencies to create modular services that combine capabilities from disparate legacy and cloud applications to securely deliver better services to citizens and stakeholders within the confines of an inflexible budget.

While the CIO Council acknowledged that the government lags behind the private sector in terms of adoption and utilization of technology, a shared services model applied by the public sector since the 1980s provides a hopeful foundation for the adoption of APIs.

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Looking to shared services

The government turned to shared services as a way to not only save money, but also to reduce the number of technology silos being built. For too long, agencies would build individual systems that only they could use. This was not only expensive, but overly complicated. By pushing shared services, agencies instead could leverage existing systems and spend more time focusing on mission-critical technology projects. However, these shared services are only broadly used across agencies if they present a familiar and consistent mode of interaction, similar to a lingua franca or a common currency. APIs provide that consistent mode of interaction.

In recent years, the federal government has made increased use of shared services a priority. In October 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and General Services Administration (GSA) together established the Unified Shared Services Management (USSM) office to oversee the current shared service ecosystem.

Other governments have shown how successful this model can be. The UK’s Government Digital Service and Estonia — one of the world’s most technology progressive governments — each saw positive gains by implementing a platform-based approach that the U.S. wants to emulate.

Ensuring reuse with an application network

With this shared services model in place, the government is well positioned to embrace APIs and develop composite services to deliver on its mission more efficiently and cost-effectively. Although the mandate to create shared services was a compelling event to begin this process, adoption of these services within and across agencies has happened at a snail’s pace.

Success in the shared services model must be measured by how much these services are shared, or reused, across agencies. By embracing and executing a holistic API strategy, government agencies can start to deliver on the promise of the shared services model, thereby driving richer experiences and engagements among their constituents.

Managing a system the size of the federal government’s is not an easy task.

Agencies have become tied into inflexible systems that are expensive to maintain and are ill-suited to support mission critical requirements. APIs are critical in helping to upgrade the federal government’s existing base of legacy IT applications. Whereas previous methods for connecting IT systems required expert knowledge, the modern API exposes these systems in a consistent and familiar communication model, which enables more people to access the data within. With more IT professionals able to securely access this data, agencies can more quickly launch modern customer-centric experiences and services to their constituents.

With a change in thinking and a commitment to APIs, agencies can begin to take steps toward an easier and more manageable enterprise. This is especially pertinent to the federal government, which has struggled to move on from legacy technology that has become increasingly expensive and offers limited opportunities for innovation. The end result will be a system that runs similar to those in the private sector, but leverages the increased opportunity for reuse within government.

Agencies need to take an API-led approach to unlocking data in IT systems. APIs enable agencies to open up their IT assets without compromising security or governance. In doing so, APIs enable a new IT operating model, in which central IT drives the production of reusable assets and enables business to consume those assets to deliver on their mission objectives. This change in operating model enables the realization of the “composable organization,” where assets and services can be leveraged independent of geographic, technical, or agency boundaries.

The result of applying an API-led approach is the emergence of an application network that connects applications, data and devices through APIs in order to expose some or all of their assets and data for broad use, allowing consumers from other parts of the agency to come in, discover and use those assets.

The key aspect of an application network is reuse. As the CIO Council report said, an API-led approach “significantly reduces the amount of source code needed — a team of two can implement what formerly took a team of 20.” The ability to reuse these applications, data sources and devices on the network increases their overall value, allowing for greater efficiency in government and more opportunity for innovation.

Consider the vast array of common processes and services that agencies currently manage independently–employee onboarding, payments, FOIA requests and appointment booking to name a few — and imagine the massive cost benefits that could be realized if this duplicative work was removed. That’s the promise that APIs and a shared services model holds, and we’re glad to see the federal CIO Council adopt a similar view.

Ugorji Nwoke is a client architect with MuleSoft.