Apps, Platforms and Government

This one of a series of articles focused on transformation of government service, produced in association with Equiniti

A few years ago, we were discussing the app economy. Apps (i.e. applications, typically, on mobile devices) were revolutionary, or so it appeared. Everyone wanted an app and tech entrepreneurs fell over themselves to get in on the act. Even government departments and local authorities rolled out apps.

But not all apps were created equal. The app market became the ultimate long-tail exemplar – people used a few apps, but most of the rest were wannabes.

The problem with many of the apps was that they weren’t joined up. Each had to do its own convincing of its own importance. After a while, they failed. They were deleted. They died.

There’s something allegorical about the app story. Apps continue to be important – we all use them. But apps aren’t important in themselves…they are merely windows into information. Some provide huge vistas into a vast, connected world. Some don’t.

The API economy, on the other hand, is something different.

Where many apps were standalone and insignificant, APIs provide for a joined-up world of possibilities. The API economy is as important for government as the private sector. Here’s how an article in Forbes defined APIs (and why they’re important):[1]

APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) are the components that enable diverse platforms, apps, and systems to connect and share data with each other.  Think of APIs as a set of software modules, tools, and protocols that enable two or more platforms, systems and most commonly, applications to communicate with each other and initiate tasks or processes. APIs are essential for defining and customizing Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) too. Cloud platform providers all have extensive APIs defined and work in close collaboration with development partners to fine-tune app performance using them.

In short, APIs allow applications to be built without the need to constantly reinvent the wheel.

In a government context, this is very significant. APIs allow applications and user interfaces to share critical information and processes. But it also means that government can become more like a platform than a set of apps that don’t talk. This makes the process of government more seamless, less annoying and much, much more efficient.

The Institute for Government (IfG) has recognised this. In its report published in June (Improving the Management of Digital Government) it pointed out how the cyber-attack that took down hospitals and doctor surgeries across the UK (largely because Old PC operating systems hadn’t been updated) showed the fragility of government IT.  It also called into question the role of the Government Digital Service. The report, while recognising that the UK was considered to have one of the most digitally developed e-governments, also laid out what more could be done.

More recently, Francis Maude, the former government minister who created the Government Digital Service, also criticised the civil service in terms of its embracing of the need for greater efficiency and reform. In his speech, delivered in September 2017, he said, “imperceptibly, inch by inch, with a control dropped here or not enforced there, the old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging, with nothing to restrain the old unreconstructed behaviours from taking hold once more.”

The Civil Service and GDS hit back. But regardless of whether criticism is due it’s clear that there are rewards waiting if the government can reject the departmental baronies and move towards an API-focused model for government.

The IfG Report defined what needed to be done:

  • GDS should create a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the public sector that encourages reuse and supports the development of API standards.
  • The Government should urgently clarify the roles of GOV.UK Verify and the Government Gateway, to spread the benefits of secure identity verification.
  • GDS needs to manage the market for digital services more actively, by: a) configuring the Digital Marketplace for different users b) ensuring that standards are enforced with vendors, including on shared services, to save money and provide a better service for users.
  • GDS should work with the Treasury to review practices around charging for sharing data within government and the public sector, and establish principles so that incentives to share data adequately reflect the public interest.

Sharing is the watch-word here. The creation of an API store for the public sector works to ensure reusability of core information assets – meaning that complex processes can be made seamless as far as the citizen is concerned.

Many of the services provided by government require (currently) multiple systems to be accessed independently of each other. That’s why the IfG is right to highlight the importance of identity verification. Silo verification is a key reason why interoperability doesn’t work within government – and it’s also a major source of citizen frustration.

With a commitment to efficiency and reform within government we’re tantalisingly close to all- digital government service. However, the government needs to create its own API economy before that’s achieved.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2017/01/29/2017-is-quickly-becoming-the-year-of-the-api-economy/

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About the Author

Jeffrey Peel
Editor, Citizen20Series and MD, Quadriga Consulting.I am responsible for all site content and have overall responsibility for site editorial, as well as site membership.