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In 2016, the Government Accountability Office, a US government watchdog, published an account of the oldest government IT systems. The average age of those systems, which handle things like our nuclear forces, our weather satellites, and incidents involving hazardous materials, is 49.8 years. The oldest system, at 56 years old, is the Internal Revenue System that handles taxpayer data and handles refunds, which is  “written in assembly language code — a low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain — and operates on an IBM mainframe,” according to the GAO. So it's no wonder that these legacy systems sometimes struggle to meet modern needs.

You can't get the political parties to agree on much in Washington, but legacy modernization is one of the very few policy areas that both sides support. President Trump signed an executive order creating a new technology council to “transform and modernize” US government IT; President Obama's OMB chief has also recommended steps to modernize legacy government systems. There's bipartisan agreement in Congress on legacy modernization as well.

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As in the private sector, modernizing legacy IT systems in government is a critical way to improve citizen experiences. And at a time when there is budget pressure on public sector agencies, when they often have to do more with less, modernizing legacy systems is a powerful way to improve efficiency. Siloed legacy systems can stymie innovation by not only restricting access to core data, but by consuming budget and resources for maintenance.

Use APIs to Accelerate Legacy Modernization

But how can this actually happen? Through an API-led approach to integration. Modern, well-designed APIs, deployed in a thoughtful, strategic way, have unlocked digital transformation for private sector organizations, and can do the same for public sector legacy modernization projects.

Government IT teams are facing three challenges which can be solved through API-led integration:

  • Legacy systems are not equipped to support modern needs (e.g. real-time information exchange). With an API, it's possible to expose data to modern applications, yet do so in a way that maintains system integrity by implementing policies that restrict the number of calls that can be made on the system
  • The technical complexity of legacy systems, combined with skill gaps, increases costs. An API can be built on top of the core system that abstracts data and business logic away from the complexity of the system, enabling consumption from non-specialists. Furthermore, of this API across different projects eliminates the need for continued point-to-point integrations each time a different application needs access to the system, which further reduces costs.
  • Opening access to modern applications requires security functionality outside the system's scope. Exposing access to legacy systems exclusively through APIs enables administrative control of user access and auditing capability.

Benefits of Legacy Modernization through an API-led Architecture

An API-led architecture can ensure the reliability, interoperability, and security of legacy systems, and, when combined with a governed API management lifecycle, can go a long way to solving the digital transformation problems that government IT organizations are facing in dealing with foundational systems that are half a century old.

Legacy modernization is possible for any government IT organization. We have seen numerous government IT teams, like the State of Colorado, overcome the challenges presented by legacy systems to accelerate IT project delivery speed and ultimately enable better delivery of services to their citizens. To find out more about how an API-led approach works in the public sector, and how government agencies are leveraging this approach to accelerate project delivery speed, take a look at our whitepaper, “Accelerating Government IT Innovation with APIs and Microservices.”