Is 2016 the Year of Government as an API?

Looking forward, public APIs will play a key role in helping to complete the e-government experiment.

by / December 9, 2015

The new year will mark the dawn of the third decade of e-government. It comes as citizen and business expectations of government are being shaped by their digital lives — that is, the way they find information, buy things and request services in the wider economy.  

Think of the companies that connect with you regularly in a rich and contextual way and there are probably application program interfaces (APIs) working below the presentation layer, connecting two or more discrete apps to create a better, fuller, more rewarding experience for the person looking to get stuff done.

Moving money and permissions reflect much of what government does, including core functions such as providing public assistance, licensing and the full spectrum of regulation. These are more effectively done in a bit-based world than an atom-based one. Open data makes these government actions more transparent, while throwing off data exhaust that is fueling the creation of useful things through the fledgling civic startup space and its nonprofit counterparts in the civic hacking space.

Whether doing routine transactions at scale through online self-service or enlivening civic life through social citizen engagement, e-government is inextricably linked to surfacing and connecting previously isolated data and hidden content.

The first wave of e-government focused on the buildout of Web portals as virtual city halls, county seats or state capitals. Then came the iterative development of online applications to streamline complex bureaucratic processes and shift routine workload to servers who liked such tasks, thereby freeing up public employees to do higher-value work.  

Government is now at a place where the value of its applications (and the automated processes behind them) are being realized through integration with third-party solutions. It flips the relationship in the citizen’s favor. Rather than petitioning the government for service or redress on the government’s terms, government is now becoming available on a device and as part of an experience designed for (and sometimes by) the citizen herself.

Bill Eggers and other authors have argued the merits of a more invisible government, where the public sector is embedded more or less seamlessly in applications provided by other players in the economy. Take, for example, the car buying experience in which a prospective buyer now researches, shops, configures, finances and insures a new or used vehicle online. Related government services — verifying driver status for insurance purposes, recording emissions certifications and registering the vehicle — are also digital processes but often divorced from the rest of the process. 

Enter the API. Governments regularly consume public APIs, including those for mapping and payments. They also provide private APIs to connect applications within the government ecosystem. Looking forward, government-provided public APIs play a key role in helping to complete the e-government experiment.

Individual APIs are increasingly being succeeded in enterprise architectures with an API integration layer that takes the pressure off disparate legacy systems overburdened by repetitious calls from myriad platforms — iOS, Android, Web, and more recently, the Internet of Things.

Mike Reich, a civic startup veteran most recently with Seabourne, sees huge untapped potential in making the vast amounts of authoritative content government holds available via public APIs. They “allow you to create an application that leverages the work of others to make your product better” and focus on building out features unique to public service.

APIs are the glue that makes the Internet friendlier — first for applications needing a structured way to understand information that’s missing from the Web, which in turn speeds and improves people’s experience in getting stuff done. 

Real people getting stuff done with — not despite — government has measurable economic and social benefits. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that there are $11 billion on the table over the next five years. ITIF President Rob Atkinson contends that the public sector too rarely accounts for productivity gains through IT that accrue to those outside of government — but they should. And in many cases, they’ll have three letters to thank for it.

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.