18F Counts On APIs To Help Government Improve Service Delivery

Mark Boyd
Apr. 04 2014, 08:00AM EDT

APIs are at the heart of a new initiative aimed at giving the U.S. government the agility and flexibility needed to serve today’s citizens, communities and businesses. The White House’s General Services Administration (GSA) has established “18F,” a new department aimed at providing open source tools and demonstrating new ways of working with entrepreneurs and innovators to deliver digital services to government agencies, businesses and citizens.

The GSA supports the processes that all federal agencies use to buy products, procure services and manage contracts. It also manages an extensive real estate portfolio of government assets and buildings. The goal of 18F is to “build effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves,” according to the 18F website. ProgrammableWeb spoke with Gray Brooks, API Strategist, and Hillary Hartley, Lead Designer at 18F, and asked what lean startup experts Patrick Vlaskovits and Pat Sheridan think of the idea.

Fixing a broken system, preparing for a workable tomorrow?

The last 12 months have proven that existing government processes and systems are broken. First, the US Federal Government shutdown ground many projects and initiatives to a halt, while the launch of the healthcare.gov website—which was supposed to showcase one of the President’s most hard-fought initiatives—suffered more than three months of implementation problems, many attributed to the poor selection of contractors initially brought in through a bulky and complex procurement process.

Politicians, policy commentators and business leaders across the U.S. and around the world are finding the way that governments do business no longer works. Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California, has believed for some time that open data; making use of social collaboration technologies; and learning from agile, iterative development will be essential to how governments deliver services and engage with local residents and businesses in the future. With Lisa Dickey, he documented many of his thoughts in the lauded Citizenville: How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.

In the last week, policy commentator and tech analyst Tim O’Reilly has seen it as an even more urgent need than the coaxing toward tomorrow that Citizenville encouraged. O’Reilly wrote a scathing analysis on both LinkedIn and his blog O’Reilly Radar that argued for organizational transformation at every level to address the many deficiencies in how a government interacts with its citizens that the healthcare debacle exposed.

In Europe, policy actors like Cathrine Lippert—who is charged with opening up data across the Danish government as part of a digitization strategy within the Ministry of Finance—have faced resistance from some stakeholders when advocating for opening up data and government-led open data APIs. Two of the biggest barriers Lippert faced are a cultural fear of loss of control around how the data will be used, and the lack of capacity for government to implement an iterative, agile approach in order to succeed. “In government, we are not very good at the agile approach,” she told an audience of developers at the Nordic APIs event this week in Copenhagen. “We either create huge projects or we do nothing.”

Meanwhile, when innovators do come to government with ideas for solutions, there is no avenue that allows entrepreneurs and technologists to discuss how to improve quality service delivery. One of the key problems facing healthcare.gov’s implementation was how often the site went down. This revealed the core nature of the problem: Governments are unable to leverage digital technologies to engage with citizens around something as fundamental to daily life as their individual and family’s healthcare.

Startup Load Impact—which has worked with business and enterprise clients around the globe and has an established operation in San Francisco—reached out to the relevant U.S. Federal agencies to offer its site performance load services for free to help the government identify problems in the healthcare.gov implementation.

“I'm guessing they were probably in panic mode at the time and not especially contactable,” Ragnar Lönn, CEO of Load Impact, told ProgrammableWeb. “We're still interested in working with them and to help them avoid similar problems in the future.”

The difference in the way private and public sectors operate also became obvious during this outreach. While Federal agencies didn’t respond, several healthcare businesses (and even some state healthcare agencies) quickly approached Load Impact, wanting to learn more. Lönn has since turned to volunteering some of his time in his native Sweden to help government agencies better manage the infrastructure necessary to open up their data to the public.

These systemic problems manifest in all parts of government and have even affected the GSA itself. API Evangelist and Former Presidential Innovation Fellow Kin Lane found the system was too cumbersome and ineffectual to allow him to contribute to the agenda in the agile and flexible ways he employs as a private contractor and API consultant. While still supporting many projects on the government’s API agenda, he does so at arm’s length now after having seen how the system stopped operating during the federal government shutdown last fall. At the time, as part of his role, he had been working on a hackathon for Veterans Affairs, but the timing of the shutdown meant that many of the APIs to be used in the hackathon (aimed in part at building developer community support and trust) would not be ready unless he took a skunkworks approach to finishing the APIs while he was officially furloughed.

What is 18F?

Lane’s experience as a Presidential Innovation Fellow was one of the key drivers for the creation of 18F. The program aims to create new ways of working with external startups, innovators and entrepreneurs to help GSA build and deliver better digital services. They are committed to agile methodologies and lean startup principles to create workable prototypes, and are creating open source tools to help government agencies adopt and scale these new ideas quickly.

“18F is an intergovernmental model based on work that was started by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s approach out of Colorado,” says Gray Brooks, API Strategist at 18F. "We are trying to build a technology hub that any agency can use within their programs. We are doing early prototyping and ">sharing the code on Github, for example. Our projects provide a lot of ways you can test APIs through the browser to allow prototyping as readily as possible and then you can look at the deeper stack issues. It is similar to a website usability project, but except with outside developers giving us really raw feedback about the tools.”

“Gray has really been facilitating conversations on a government and community-wide level,” said Hillary Hartley, Lead Designer at 18F. “Going to meetups, hackathons, developer community events … that is what we are trying to do with 18F as a way we work.”

The team pointed to three signature projects that demonstrate how 18F hopes to change the way governments work: MyUSA, FBOpen and API All the X.

Initiative 1: MyUSA


What it is: A forerunner of 18F, MyUSA aims to help government agencies quickly implement more interactive ways to navigate government content on agency websites and mobile apps. For example, MyUSA manages the MyUSA Citizen API that allows site visitors to login and gain more contextual, personalized access to the relevant government agency’s websites. The tools are designed to help government agencies embed a more personalized experience quickly.

More information: MyUSA Project "About page" and Developer portal

What 18F says: “The first couple of months of 18F will show how we build up some of these projects so they can be foundational and repeatable,” says Hartley. “MyUSA is a lightweight stack that is really easily searchable. It has become a platform that other agencies are building on and that we will build on. It is at the core of how we will build products in the future. We have been pretty transparent about how we build in the open and we will continue to use that as a tool—not just for building but for communicating—to say, 'this is how we are moving forward.' ”

Industry reaction: Patrick Vlaskovits is an entrepreneur and co-author of several startup books, including The Lean Entrepreneur and The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development, which is used as a core text at Stanford, Boston University, the University of Chicago and the University of Norway. When hearing about the 18F initiative, he said:

Unsurprisingly, you can consider me enthusiastic about this sort of approach! I think this is something that *should* get bipartisan support, and hopefully lead to more efficient delivery of government services. I've personally seen the tremendous amounts of low-hanging fruit harvested by lean startups in (ostensibly) efficient private sector corporate giants and am confident this can be replicated in government. That noted, the initiative itself should be thought as an experiment—a meta-experiment. Does it create value? If yes, keep on keepin' on. If not, why not?

Initiative 2: FBOpen


What it is: A set of open source tools, including the FBOpen API aimed at helping small business more easily locate contracting opportunities within government agencies

More information: Website, blog and Github

What 18F says: “Part of some people’s daily routine is to check available government contracts,” says Hartley. “We suggest maybe they use FBOpen and create fantastic integrations into their own systems to take that work out of their daily tasks. But more than that, 18F has this underlying strategy of providing procurement-as-a-service. We will be blogging and talking about that over the coming weeks. Procurement is something coming out of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, it is something we are definitely focused on. Being able to scale that government-wide, it can only be a positive.”

18F is actively seeking feedback on its FBOpen API at present.

Industry reaction: Pat Sheridan, founder of Modus Create, uses lean startup methodologies and agile principles to prototype and develop new products for enterprise. He also presented five rules for product development when creating government-related digital products at the recent ModevGov conference in Rosslyn, Va. Looking at the initiatives of 18F he says:

I'm a huge believer in open data and open access and that alone can create tons of opportunity for entrepreneurs. In regards to the FBOopen, I'm concerned that creating access to the broken system isn't the right answer. The staged gate RFP [request for proposal] process is what created the waterfall software methodology in the first place, breaking the software process into large contracts and destroying the holistic value-driven principles agile, lean, and user-centered design (UCD) try to enforce.

This procurement system has created mega-companies that are great at sourcing and writing RFPs, not building great software. I don't think making that thinking 'more lean' is the answer, I think someone should be asking how to change the procurement vehicles to enable agile, lean, and UCD projects to add the most value to citizens? The GSA focus has been on driving cost deflation from vendors for too long, at the cost of innovation. Innovation, by definition is about investment.

An active conversation with entrepreneurs allows 18F to better focus their lens. To best serve entrepreneurs, 18F should treat them as their customers, seek them out from the existing government places they end up, SBA, SBIR grants, etc, and defining the thesis for how entrepreneurs are best served. I suspect they would define many interesting subclasses of entrepreneurs with their own goals and challenges.

Initiative 3: All the X

What it is: A central repository of tools and resources to encourage the API conversation within government agencies, including presentation slide decks, data management and API creation tools, resource lists, and templates for government API standards and Terms of Service.

More info: Github

What 18F says: “You can see from the conversations that are going on Government APIs Google Group, that there is a lot of wisdom that is being shared, and the idea is that we can share that even further through the API Exchange,” says Brooks.

Industry reaction: Vlaskovits is hopeful: “A shift in the way the government delivers services might be precipitated if 18F is successful—I'd recommend entrepreneurs keep an eye on it, not only for short-term gain but for longer term shifts in paradigms around APIs on top of untapped data.”

Making Citizenville the reality

Former Mayor of San Francisco and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, wrote Citizenville to document many of the changes he sees needed as part of the digitization of government service delivery and citizen interaction. Many of the changes proposed in the book match the approach 18F is trying to take.

“The launch of 18F is a great start to connecting people and businesses with government,” Lieutenant Governor Newsom told ProgrammableWeb. “Government has fallen behind in technology and reforms to bring government up to speed are a long-time coming. But change is happening. In California, for instance, we launched a website this week in partnership with OpenGov.com and the State Lands Commission. The site allows citizens the opportunity to analyze budgets, leases and contract royalties within the department. All agencies should be taking these steps to make citizens more involved in government. 18F seems to be a similar partnership, I look forward to seeing the benefits that can come from it.”

Can APIs influence policy making?

18F will be an important model to watch as far as seeing what really happens when the policy rubber hits the political tarmac. At some point, the agility and speed that APIs enable will affect policy development processes, where politics comes into play more than efficiency of production. This is where Pat Sheridan becomes more cynical (or pragmatic) about the successes that 18F can achieve. “I think it's definitely the right way to go from the perspective of HOW things get done on the ground,” he says.

“My concern is that to be truly effective, it's going to require support from the SES [Senior Executive Service] and political layer as well," says Sheridan. "I would expect the same kind of fights in Congress we saw during the BRAC [base realignment] once someone suggests budgets get diverted to support projects. Everyone loves the idea of building better software more quickly, but I don't know if everyone is on board with the brutally honest conversations that will come along with lean adoption about WHY the current system is failing so bad.”

The hope is that by creating more flexibility and speed in government service and product development, political game-playing will be more exposed when it is used as a barrier to getting things done or used to preserve traditional power dynamics. Over the next year, watching how 18F seeks to disrupt government procurement processes will be the real-world example of note. For innovators looking for new approaches to collaboration and agile development that can work with large, monolithic systems like enterprise and government bureaucracies, 18F may offer new learnings, alongside similar initiatives like the UK Government Digital Service and city-based models like Forum Virium in Helsinki. For entrepreneurs and startups seeking to sell to government, keeping an eye on 18F is already a must.

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self and e-commerce. He can be contacted via email, on Twitter or on Google+.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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