Why Transparency Matters for Government API Strategies

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Joann O’Brien, VP of Agile Collaboration at TM Forum (the global industry association for digital business) told ProgrammableWeb that HMRC’s API Strategy is highly commendable:

It’s a great example of what the public service are doing to adapt to the API economy, it’s very impressive.

Regarding SLAs, I feel they have an awareness of the requirements because they have mentioned it in their future road map. They have a really good roadmap, and they are clearly recognizing the importance of developer experience.

However, O’Brien does see further opportunities in the HMRC’s approach: “The thing that jumps out at me that is missing, is a suite of common business APIs, like what TM Forum provides. We find it helps more easily connect with developers and helps them integrate into their applications. But I suspect that is merely an evolutionary thing.”

O’Brien says there is a lack of SLAs being used for Government API strategies:

When you think about SLAs, the value is that it makes clear who owns the relationship with the customer: is clear who is taking responsibility for that relationship. In this context, it is not clear who is taking responsibility. It is a curiosity factor for me. What does this whole dynamic do? Who is owning the relationship at the end of the day? That is the power of SLAs: it clarifies everything I have committed to the customer, it clarifies everything that must be adhered to… It would be great to see them move more towards that in the future. But it is a great initiative.

In the U.S., while creating open APIs for commercial use has found some traction, it is a model that too often falters. A key example is the Open FDA API. While it is a groundbreaking example of an API implementation by a US Government agency, it still sends some mixed messages. The developer portal includes a status page that shows uptime and performance of the APIs, and includes a popup warning that the APIs are in beta and should not be used for clinical purposes:

OpenFDA example

However, no roadmap is provided on when the API may move to a more production grade of use, and when ProgrammableWeb reached out to OpenFDA earlier this year immediately after they announced their Developer Challenge, we were surprised that most of the relevant staff were on leave and unable to respond to our interview requests. The Challenge seems to have been taken down since that time.

According to the SimilarWeb website statistics service, around 3,000 API calls are made each month to OpenFDA’s APIs. While visualizeFDA makes use of the APIs, others — like commercial providers that offer prescription refilling services in the U.S. — have informed ProgrammableWeb that at this stage, there is no interest in using the beta offering. The lack of a service level agreement (SLA) that affirms continued access to the data supplied by the API may be limiting uptake of this powerful resource more broadly, although it is important to note that OpenFDA is clear that they are in a research phase of testing the APIs.

U.S. government agencies face some difficulties in committing to providing a robust API: the 2013 U.S. Government shutdown meant the government’s APIs were also taken offline. How a government shutdown would be impacted on a Government’s service level agreements is one of the sticking points preventing greater discussion around the U.S. Government committing to SLAs in their API strategies.

Global Leadership: Will U.S., Australia, Singapore Follow the Lead?

The UK’s HMRC API Strategy is one of a kind so far. In the U.S., the White House’s API innovation lab, 18F, has released a template for Government departments to use when designing and publishing their API Strategy.

The template has been forked just 42 times — predominantly by interested followers outside of government — and a search across all the US government sites for the term “API Strategy” returns a paltry 75 results.

In the digitally advanced city-state of Singapore, while four APIs are provided through a common developer portal, there is no clear API strategy roadmap and no guarantee of supply.

Australia, which has fairly advanced open data strategies documented at the national and state levels, has zero mentions of the term “API strategy” across government departments.

Even in the UK, a search of government sites for “API strategy” yields 156 results, but all are for the HMRC’s work.

Beyond Rhetoric, Beyond Pilots, Beyond Research

Government API delivery is still in its nascency. While there are any number of initiatives around the globe, the truth is that many of these are in pilot or research stage. Uptake remains muted as businesses and community organizations are hesitant to embed APIs in their production environments, whether that be for use in applications or within their key value chain processes. More often than not, government APIs are still used to supply data and insight rather than to enable functionality.

The model outlined by HMRC is one of the globe’s boldest moves yet. With the publication of an API strategy — the first of its kind — and an acute understanding of developer engagement principles and lean management in government, controversial ideas such as service level agreements being provided by Government agencies seem less risky, and more obviously the next goal on the path to creating effective government API platforms.

Be sure to read the next Government article: White House Calls for Dev Feedback to Improve We The People Petition Platform


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