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Embracing APIs for a new digital infrastructure


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Industry voice: APIs are the key to unlocking value from public sector legacy systems whilst delivering excellent new digital citizen experiences, writes Yatin Mahandru, head of public sector at Cognizant

Application programme interfaces (APIs) can enable the data flows between organisations for cross-agency services to be surfaced in new digital citizen experiences whilst building on legacy infrastructure, rather than embarking on an expensive and risky wholesale replacement. As tools they provide the building blocks for new capabilities and contribute to a more flexible and agile infrastructure that can evolve to meet demands.

This is providing a great opportunity for public authorities, to effectively fix a crucial part of the enabling connectivity for cross-agency service delivery, break some of the constraints of existing digital infrastructures and contribute to a new, more agile approach to developing services.

Next generation public services

As an organisation Cognizant believes that the public sector should have the right to maximise the value from its existing technology investments by weaving them into next generation citizen services with a user experience to rival the best of the commercial world. Whilst the above is an example of making the most of existing investments, the task when building new systems is no less challenging in ensuring a future proof approach using APIs. With public authorities caught between large legacy providers at one end of the spectrum and SME digital providers at the other end, there is an opportunity to engage new generation digital players with scale.

On this basis we supported UKAuthority's research 'APIs for the Public Good' as we were keen to learn how far the sector has worked with APIs, uncover the potential and highlight the barriers.

From the research it is clear that appreciation of the potential APIs can deliver is rising in the public sector, but there are indeed challenges in their adoption, not least around standards and legacy approaches.

There was also a distinct antipathy towards legacy suppliers who mistakenly lock in organisations by withholding APIs and access to their own data or charging exorbitant prices for the privilege.  

We believe that this is wrong. The sector should have access to the tools it needs to deliver what it says on the tin: public services to our citizens and businesses. We also believe that suppliers who cannot move forward in this emerging world of agile, flexible digital integration built around standards and APIs will fall by the wayside.

Autonomy and agility

One of the major advantages is in the value of APIs as building blocks for an organisation to develop new digital capabilities that can give them more autonomy from solution suppliers and provide the foundations for designing new applications and services.

The approach provides an alternative to a wholesale replacement of legacy infrastructure, a move that often comes with heavy costs and significant risks. Instead, APIs make it possible to build on the legacy, making more of existing applications and taking extra value while making more measured investments and controlling the level of risk.

They also provide value in connecting with new technologies and new digital citizen experience interfaces and bringing these together with the legacy to reduce complexity for users and support new processes.

In addition, they provide a foundation for the agile CICD approach – continuous integration, continuous deployment – in which the digital infrastructure is continuously amended and evolves to provide new service applications as the need arises. This again helps to mitigate risk and can do much to future proof an organisation’s approach to digital, making it more responsive to new demands on its services and the emergence of unforeseen challenges.

A standards approach

However, it needs progress in a couple of key areas to encourage the wider adoption of APIs. One of these is the development of open or common standards.

The point of this is to provide sufficient consistency in their construction and the structure of the data behind them. Building APIs on robust standards helps to build trust in their effectiveness, makes it easier for people who want to consume the data, and supports the management of any risk around how it is handled. It can also contribute to the long term preservation of data in providing a basis for it to be accessed.

Some general standards for the development of APIs have emerged. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has catalogued those relevant to public sector digital services, referring to the Government’s open standards principles, and NHS Digital has built its future digital strategy on standards and API building blocks. But there is a need for a strong framework of standards to support interoperability between agencies.

However, this should stop short of being made mandatory, as each government agency will have its own legacy infrastructure and requirements and such a move could produce more challenges than solutions. But there should be a consensus on the framework and how you get interoperability between departments where there is a need for cross-cutting services.

It would involve a recognition of what constitutes best practice and be reflected in guidelines within which suppliers could develop software for the government market. And it would help for strong leadership here to come from central bodies such as GDS and NHS Digital that would have a strong voice among the wider public sector.

The steady emergence of open standards and APIs as part of government best practice will bring pressure for a more co-operative attitude among legacy suppliers. Meanwhile, new options are arising for public sector buyers with the emergence of suppliers such as Cognizant who embrace the challenge - and see APIs as a building block to digital transformation and innovation.

We look forward to when the public sector no longer has to ask for APIs to be built into new systems; they will come as part of the package when a new generation of suppliers will enable them as a matter of course.

APIs for the public good

Issues around APIs in the public sector have been examined in an in-depth research project, carried out by UKAuthority and sponsored by Cognizant, which has yielded some important insights into the factors affecting the outlook. Its findings are included in a freely available report, summing up the outlook and the steps that can lead to realising their full potential.

The full report can be downloaded here.

You may also be interested in the UKA Live webcast, APIs for the public good, on 8th February from 11-12 noon. Click here for more information and to register for your free place

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