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Across industries, organizations are realizing the power of reusable APIs to transform the way they do business. Health systems are redefining patient care, retailers are pioneering innovative omnichannel experiences for their customers, and banks have accelerated the speed at which they can bring innovative new products and services to market.

But what about government? How should federal agencies be thinking about leveraging reusable APIs to enable more efficient and cost-effective citizen service and mission delivery?

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I think the recent recommendations from the Federal CIO Council provide a good starting point. In their March report, Developer Platforms: Shared Services for Common Developer-Focused APIs and Services, they discussed how government can realize many of the same benefits the private sector has realized from driving reuse and eliminating redundancy.

While the council readily admits that “the Federal Government’s vast scale, distributed structure, and complex legal environment impose many unique requirements,” their report recognizes that APIs provide “a new way to improve efficiency and effectiveness,” and can help address “services that directly impact mission delivery such as citizen-facing applications or optimization of internal operations through consolidation or de-duplication of IT functions.”

Based on MuleSoft’s work with numerous federal agencies, including the FCC, VA, and USDA, I couldn’t agree more with the wisdom of this approach. Our research suggests that government agencies implementing API-led connectivity are realizing 2-5X increases in IT productivity.

However, it’s not enough for agencies to simply build out APIs, in a vacuum. For government agencies to realize the benefits articulated by the Federal CIO Council, APIs must be both discoverable and reusable, within the agency as well as across different agencies. How can this be achieved? The application network provides a model for how government agencies should think about operationalizing this API-led approach.  

Defining the application network in government

Application networks provide a framework for realizing the benefits of increased efficiency and improved mission execution outlined by the council. They connect applications, data, and devices through APIs in order to expose their assets for broader use; and emerge organically as successive endpoints within the enterprise are added to the network to expose the underlying data and services for broader use.

application network

As depicted in the diagram above, an application network consists of business applications (indicated as black circles) whose capabilities need to be combined to implement business processes. Composite services (indicated as blue circles) connect to these applications, and either expose some of their capabilities directly as APIs, or combine them with other applications to expose enriched APIs.

Those composite services, in turn, are treated as applications by other composite services (more blue circles) that implement other business processes, and so on. The defining aspect of the application network is reuse; capabilities in an application or composite service can be leveraged by other applications and services, creating an efficient marketplace of business capabilities to fuel the rapid, agile, distributed, and scalable creation of business value.

Note that, as in other networks, not all information in the network is necessarily exposed to others in the network. The same APIs which provide the ability for an application to be plugged into the network, also allow for the teams who own access to the application or data source to govern who can access it, and under what conditions.

Designed accordingly, application networks provide a number of benefits to government. Since they are built with reusable, modular components, applications are accessible and recomposable to accommodate the distinct needs of different agencies or program offices as they emerge.

Application networks are also secure by design. Access to each application plugged into the network is unambiguously governed by the API contract, which exposes the application to the network, and by a set of policies which are applied automatically and dynamically on the service endpoint. Furthermore, by leveraging reusable components built by domain experts, government agencies reduce the “area of attack” for bad actors because the development and integration lifecycle no longer introduces unvetted access points to data or systems.  

Like other networks, such as social or telecommunication networks, the application network adheres to Metcalf’s law – namely – that the value of the network grows in proportion to the number of connected endpoints. It’s for this reason that the application network holds such particular promise for government.

Individual US federal agencies dwarf all but the largest of private sector enterprises in the size and scope of their IT landscape. And when considered collectively, the US federal government represents the largest IT enterprise in the world, with annual IT spend over 8X higher than that of the largest private sector organization (Walmart, coming in at a “paltry” $10.5B). Can this size be leveraged?

In contrast to the private sector, where the vast majority of services and data are only shared internally due to competitive motivations, government agencies are not (or should not be!) so constrained. While an application network may emerge within the four walls of an agency, agencies should aspire to extend the capabilities of their application network externally, at least to other agencies, in order to contribute to an application network extending across the whole of government.

Then, in keeping with Metcalf’s law about the value increasing in proportion to overall network size, this network of networks, much like the internet, would allow the federal government to derive value far and above what would be possible in a private sector entity.

Application networks as a shared services enabler at USDA

Agencies within and outside the US that have started to build application networks have begun realizing the same benefits around speed and agility that we’ve observed in the private sector.

Consider the example of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Facing a project to support payments and advances for employee relocation, they could have simply created a point-to-point connection between SAP and the application they were developing. This would have met the basic project requirements, but there would have been no opportunities for reuse. For each additional project requiring SAP data, they would have needed to rewrite additional custom code.

As their consulting partner Dominion Consulting shared at last month’s MuleSoft Washington DC Summit, the USDA instead opted to build a set of reusable APIs exposing SAP data and services to fulfill the initial project requirements.

The wisdom of this approach quickly paid off. Soon after delivering the initial project, the team was tasked with modernizing an application which required access to the same SAP services powering the employee relocation project.

Since these services were already plugged into the USDA’s emerging application network, they were able to reuse them instead of building another custom interface. According to Dominion Consulting, by leveraging reusable APIs, the new project only took 3 months to develop, compared with over 5 years for the previous iteration of the project. This represents a 20X increase in project delivery speed, powered by the assets accessible through the application network.

Furthermore, as a federal shared services provider, the USDA’s forward-looking plan is to expose these services for use at other agencies, and in doing so, contribute to an application network that extends across government.

Building an application network to support interagency data sharing

Agencies outside the US are also realizing similar benefits and paving a path for others in government to follow. Service NSW, based out of the Australian state of New South Wales, provides an additional example of how application networks enable more efficient, cost-effective government.

Historically, government service access across the state of New South Wales had been highly fragmented, with delivery spanning across over 400 government operated shop fronts, 102 government call centers, and 900 websites. In response, the state conceived Service NSW–– a single, omnichannel platform for citizens to engage across any part of the state government and access any state service, addressing everything from scheduling a driver’s test to obtaining a marriage license.

Automating and digitizing government services required seamless, real-time integration with systems spanning over 40 government departments and agencies. Furthermore, the sensitive nature of the data involved made security an imperative. Service NSW addressed these challenges by creating an application network that expands across these disparate agencies. Each agency exposes their separate services and data to the network with an API. Access to the resultant network is exposed to citizens, who can now self-serve from its various capabilities.

Through this approach, the state of New South Wales was able to plug over 800 digital services into the network. Services accessible through the network have been extended through various channels––from their web page to in-person kiosks and mobile applications. To date, this approach has yielded a 97% customer satisfaction rating across over 2 million citizens served.

Application networks: The path forward for the US federal government

The Federal CIO Council rightfully identified that building out a government-wide shared services framework will require hearty collaboration with industry, and should build off of preliminary successes from early adopters, such as the USDA and the Australian Service NSW. Their research findings “support an aggressive approach to building a robust ecosystem of developer-focused shared services designed to support federal departments and agencies.”

The application network provides a practical, proven framework for the development of such an ecosystem. It enables seamless sharing of data and services that impact mission delivery within and outside the agency in a way that actually bolsters, instead of compromises, information security. We urge agencies to follow the recommendations of the Federal CIO Council and implement application networks, to achieve the kinds of cost-savings and rapid time to value they need to fulfill their missions to the citizenry. Then, as these networks are built out and connect across agency boundaries, well-known network effects will further accelerate their adoption and value to create a runaway success and a model for federal service orientation.

Learn more about application networks and the capabilities and benefits they can provide for the federal government.