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Why APIs are the key to effective government digital transformation

Ian Fairclough Profile picture for user ifairclough November 26, 2019
Best practice examples from the UK show why APIs are needed for digital transformation in governments around the world, says Mulesoft's Ian Fairclough.

An image of Houses of Parliament

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) has made significant progress on making public services better through more effective use of digital technology and data. However, a recent  report from the British Parliament warns of a loss of momentum when it comes to its implementation, due in part to persistent challenges around data sharing and legacy systems.

As the GDS works to regain the initiative and bring citizens and the public sector closer together, an effective API strategy will be critical, which is perhaps why the GDS recently unveiled a new API Catalogue. When implemented effectively, APIs can expose useful data and package it up for reuse across central and local government systems to improve citizen experiences, deliver public services more effectively, and maximise the use of taxpayers’ money.

Government transformation

The GDS was launched in 2011 with a core mission to save money, centralise information and improve the user experience for citizens. However, three years ago, it was updated to incorporate the ambitious Government Transformation Strategy, which encouraged  technological innovation to make government organisations more agile and responsive to citizens’ needs.

Governments often struggle to provide the digital experiences that consumers expect. More than two-thirds (67%) of consumers surveyed in the recent Customer Experience and the Connectivity Chasm report say that they receive disconnected experiences from public sector organisations. Despite the UK’s high standing globally when it comes to its government’s ability to harness digital technology effectively, it has also struggled with digitalisation of late, according to a Science and Technology committee report from July. Government digital transformation is a broad umbrella term that in part refers to front-end optimisation to improve the online experience for citizens. But more broadly, it alludes to a fundamental shift in the way departments operate and deliver end-to-end services through digital technologies.

Right from the start, the Government Transformation Strategy upheld that data-sharing was absolutely vital to achieving its aims and strengthening the citizen-government relationship. The UK government argued that its ability to connect data from multiple public sector departments was essential to delivering public services in a way that was both convenient and cost-effective for citizens.

The legacy conundrum

However, legacy systems present a persistent roadblock to adopting faster and more efficient ways of running government. These systems often operate in silos, given they’re built-up and upgraded gradually over many years. As a result, they are often outdated, running on incompatible architectures and operating systems that are difficult to integrate. This prevents government departments from unlocking the full potential of the data within them to drive transformation and collaboration, and uniting citizen data to provide fast, accurate and personalised services.

Back in 2013, the National Audit Office estimated that £480 billion of government revenue relied on legacy technology. Needless to say, there’s a huge amount of value for the government and its citizens locked up within those systems. Rather than pursuing a drastic rip-and-replace strategy in which business-critical legacy systems are decommissioned in favor of modern alternatives within a short timeframe, governments should focus on promoting greater interoperability between modern and legacy departmental systems. Government digital transformation is like rebuilding an airplane while it’s in flight: it must be approached carefully, maintaining business operations as usual while embracing modernisation to ensure future success.

An API-led revolution

APIs are the key to successful government digitisation around the world, unlocking any system by exposing data in a standardised and secure way. This makes it easier to adopt new technologies and solutions, while getting the most out of existing legacy systems. In fact, opening up government data and services both internally and externally through the use of APIs was a significant recommendation of the Martha Lane Fox review, which led to the creation of the UK's Government Digital Service back in 2011.

An API can be layered on top of each mission critical application, data source, or device to expose data while protecting the integrity of the system, enabling secure and governed access, and accelerating developer productivity through reuse. APIs are not just a means of connecting one application to another, but rather productised assets that can be used by government departments to integrate existing data with new technologies and easily adapt to modern regulations. APIs can be exposed over an application network where others can discover and reuse them. Not only does this reduce the amount of time spent creating custom integrations, but ultimately it drives efficiency, improves services, and makes limited public funds stretch further.

A network of public services

In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is already pursuing an API strategy to manage and promote the reuse of common APIs across different teams within the organisation and externally to other government departments. To make this API strategy a success, DWP has focused on breaking down monolithic applications into granular microservices, exposed via APIs to make them easier to reuse. This has been instrumental in supporting collaboration with other government departments to improve citizen experiences.

For example, an NHS prescription check service uses a microservice that DWP originally developed for the HMRC, breaking a request down into several API calls. These calls validate the citizen’s identity and check their National Insurance Number and the benefits they receive, before passing the relevant data to the NHS microservice layer, which runs the calculation for whether the patient is entitled to a free prescription.

By adopting a common, reusable API strategy like this across all of central government, there’s a fantastic opportunity to make public funds go further, tackle legacy challenges and drive the inter-departmental data sharing vital to transforming and enhancing citizen experience. That’s ultimately good news for everyone, benefitting both the government and its citizens.

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