I recently discussed why APIs are essential to transforming the public sector—they can help employees to collaborate and do their jobs more efficiently, unlock the untapped potential of data, and enable new and streamlined services that improve citizen wellbeing and even changes lives.
Yet despite the potential of APIs, government still faces significant challenges when it comes to adoption. Many departments are being held back by heritage infrastructure, long-term vendor contracts and tightening budget constraints—all while they’re struggling to meet the increasing demand for citizen services.
Here’s how the public sector can overcome some of these obstacles, accelerate its digital transformation and get better results from APIs.
Both longevity and agility are crucial in the public sector. Any investment in new IT needs to stand the test of time, but it must also be responsive to government’s changing policies and the needs of society. You don’t have to do everything at once. It’s often best to start small—then you’ve got something that works that you can build on. You might build a limited API to provide access to a limited amount of data, then gradually expand this as the demands of your citizens and employees evolve. This can help you manage the process of cleaning your data (see below). And it’s likely to pave the way for even better apps and services in the future.
It makes sense to create comprehensive documentation on your APIs. That way, if key developers leave, modifications and updates can be more easily made. This can prove particularly important when the APIs are built by contractors or externally sourced staff—when the contract ends, you should make sure they provide you with all of the technical information about the API. Without documentation, crucial knowledge could be lost, leaving you reliant on a particular company or individual—or potentially meaning you have to start again from scratch further down the line.
Many organisations have a deeply embedded heritage mindset, and employees that have been using the same systems for years may be reluctant to adopt new technologies. To smooth the transition, it’s crucial that employees are educated on the benefits of apps that are enabled by APIs, and how they will make their job easier. APIs enable modular development, mitigating the risks of systems failing due to small fixes or improvements. This isn’t all about informing employees though—you should be looking to them for their knowledge too. They’re the ones that know where your data resides, what works and what doesn’t. By creating an employee feedback loop you’ll be better positioned to ensure that APIs and the apps they enable are actually fulfilling user needs and improving your services.
APIs help you break down barriers between departments and provide greater access to data. That means more joined up experiences, where citizens aren’t required to provide the same information to different departments. It also means government can start to draw real value from today’s advanced analytics tools and draw actionable insights about addressing citizen needs (for example: Watch the webinar recording and presentation deck to find out how the Food Standards Agency is ensuring food safety and authenticity using data science), how citizens are using their services, and what needs to be improved. But your insights are only as good as the data they’re based on. Not only do inconsistencies or errors in your data harm the user experience, you could be held liable for providing false information. This means departments need to prioritise cleaning up and organising the data that’s already held in their systems; checking for errors, gaps or potential compatibility issues.
The public sector has a responsibility to protect the data of its citizens—so it’s critical that security is a priority, especially when building APIs that will access highly sensitive information. You must also adhere to standards and regulations set by the Government Digital Service (GDS), along with data privacy regulations like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But while compliance is crucial, it can sometimes stifle innovation. Bringingin API consultants or third parties with fresh ideas can help. Success stories in the private sector can also provide inspiration—there are countless examples of exciting API-based services emerging from tech giants such asAmazon and UPS, and fintechs like Lemonade.
It’s sensible to go to an expert when you want an API built, but you need a vision first—that means internalleadership is key. You need technology evangelists who are willing to champion APIs both within and outside your departments. While younger recruits might have the necessary digital skills, existing and long-standing employees probably have a more intimate understanding of your data and administrative processes—so getting the right combination of knowledge is important. You’ll also need employees with the soft skills to communicate the real-world outcomes and benefits of APIs to stakeholders.
Most public sector organisations— especially smaller councils and agencies—won’t have the in-house expertise to know, for example, when to buy, rent or build APIs. This means third-party partnerships will be important for delivering the best results, which will speed up processes and provide a better overall service for citizens.
I hope the article has reinforced the need to invest more in API’s and look forward to seeing their use accelerated across Government departments. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes APIs have been delivering overall for the public sector.
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