API days: how APIs can help public sector digital services transform and evolve

Written by Sooraj Shah on 11 January 2019 in Feature
Feature

 A recent CSW roundtable explored the importance of application programming interfaces in achieving end-to-end services.

Roundtable speakers. Photo: Paul Heartfield

Agreeing on a destination is as important to a digital journey as it is to a road trip. End-to-end services, customer journeys, and agile delivery are buzz phrases often echoed across public sector strategy documents, including the government’s Transformation Strategy in which Whitehall commits that by 2020, departments will “design and deliver joined-up, end-to-end services”.

This ambitious aim is often met with scepticism by those within government departments. Sunitha Chacko, head of the technical architecture community for the Government Digital Service, suggested that the biggest challenge to transformation is that many within Whitehall believe there’s no need to replace existing services.

“They ask what the purpose is, ‘why do I need to spend x amount of money for this piece for something that’s already working?’ For GDS, the biggest challenge is to quantify the benefits of what they’ll achieve in two years’ time if they put in the investment in now,” she said.

Chacko was one of several Whitehall experts who discussed how best to deliver joined-up services focusing on citizen needs at a CSW roundtable in partnership with global digital transformation specialist Cognizant.

One of the key themes of the event was how application programming interfaces, or APIs, could be used to help public sector digital services transform and evolve to become more joined up.

Different touchpoints need to be mapped for the process to work as it should, participants agreed. The same principle would be in place if an entrepreneur wanted to start a new business and register it, as they would be required to interact with multiple government units.

It’s worth noting that APIs are not a new concept; they’ve been around for many years, and government departments are using them in different ways. In fact, according to a survey of UKAuthority public sector readers, 87% are already exploring the potential of APIs, with 75% believing that APIs will help them to optimise the citizen experience and 71% believing that they can help pull holistic services together around the citizen.

However, as is often the case with technology, the APIs themselves are not the hardest part of the overall conundrum, according to Xerxes Hodivala, an independent consultant currently working within the Digital Change Directorate, HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

“The hard bit is actually getting the customer journey spanning multiple departments drawn up and agreed by all the departments necessary, and this is where we’ve had difficulties,” he said, adding that there have been cases in the past where citizens have had to wait 17 weeks in life or death situations for certain services. Fortunately those issues have now been resolved. 

Helen Gibson, strategic design lead for automatic enrolment at the Pensions Regulator, came to a similar conclusion when working on a project aimed at mapping all of the government services provided to those starting a new business.

“The two main conclusions we came to were that it was too big of a beast to try to improve, and there was an awful amount of duplication – those starting businesses were bombarded with so many different government agencies. We looked at how we could join this up, but realised that there were so many different departmental vested interests which was tricky to manage,” she said.

Hodivala said that the key issue is that while all departments are striving to transform, they’re all going in different directions, or at different speeds.

“It’s about everyone catching the wave at the same time if we want to do a cross-departmental thing, and it can be quite challenging. Some of the things we’ve done where departments have wanted to achieve the same thing as us have worked well, in other cases the objectives have been different and it has been hard,” he said.

“If you’re trying to do a cross-departmental service improvement, you have to get ministerial agreement and CEO agreement signed off, otherwise you could waste a huge amount of money trying to align what you’re doing with what they’re doing – the API piece is a technical enabler to get a business objective but if there isn’t a will to get the same objective done, it won’t get done,” he added.

But there have been success stories in government. HMRC, for example, has been using APIs both internally and externally.

“External software parties and partners can interact with HMRC as we’ve exposed a set of common API standards that support that, while on the internal integration piece we’ve tried to become more customer and business focused and APIs have allowed us to do that because it enables a service architecture which focuses on the end-to-end,” Richard Aldrich, deputy director of the messaging delivery group for HMRC, said.

This included work on the Making Tax Digital initiative, where HMRC is aiming to make it easier for people to fill out tax returns which will in-turn increase revenues. In addition, HMRC is aiming to break down the monolithic systems where all of this integration occurs into API microservices that are more aligned with the business services, increasing agility and the speed of transformation.

HMRC is one of the departments that has used GDS’s API standards, with Aldrich saying that HMRC is actively trying to follow GDS’s leadership in this area.

“We look at departments such as HMRC who have done it and reaped the benefits, and we want more departments to do the same,” said GDS’s Chacko.

This goes back to the return on investment (ROI) debate on introducing APIs. It is easier in the private sector, where Cognizant has worked with John Lewis, to measure the success of a project as it relates directly to customer experience.

“The key is that APIs should go unnoticed – end users should only notice a difference in the experience they receive,” said Bruno Cardoso, transformation and digital integration director of Europe for Cognizant, citing the example of Cognizant’s work for John Lewis implementing an API economy.

Chacko, who also worked at John Lewis, said that APIs were the answer for a lot of the hard work in architecting systems moving between cloud and mainframes at the retailer and delivering an appropriate digital experience.

For public sector organisations, many of which still rely on mainframe systems, this will come as a relief. But the issue remains to sell APIs and a focus on integration to the CEOs and ministers who need to sign off on projects. Niranjan Koduri of Cognizant suggested that this should be done in a similar way to how private sector firms monetise APIs – just as an entrepreneur could start a travel website and use APIs to speak to hotels, taxi services and airlines to get their information and profit from these, a public sector organisation could map this into a service focused on making citizens’ lives better.

“No one will give you £2m for an integration platform, you need to map it up to business objectives,” he said.

Another approach would be to piggyback off other big initiatives, such as a big upgrade or replacement of a monolithic system.

But participants agreed that there are challenges when it comes to upgrading and patching these systems. In cases where they are custom built, they may have been outsourced for external suppliers to maintain, meaning government departments could be charged extortionate amounts for introducing APIs onto existing systems.

The path is unclear, but as Chacko suggested, what is needed is a change of mindset that cross-departmental integration needs to be done, can be approved, and can be accomplished.

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Sooraj Shah
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