Application Programming Interfaces in Governments: Why, what and how
This report presents the results of the European Commission application programming interfaces (APIs) for digital government (APIs4DGov) study, which aims to analyse the role of APIs in the public sector and, specifically, the motivations for their use and the way governments should implement them. This document provides a concrete tool for governments to determine the status of their API strategies and, eventually, how these strategies should be designed or adopted.
In the public sector, APIs will be essential for a number of initiatives at the European level, from the publication of high-value datasets in compliance with the Open Data Directive to the creation of European data spaces and the access of public administration to artificial intelligence and high-speed computing. Even though the cohesive and coordinated adoption of APIs in the public sector is still in its early stages, the results of this study demonstrate that APIs present many benefits for the public sector, including fostering innovation in governments and related public services, improving efficiency, improving access to government open data, increasing economic opportunities for private companies using government APIs and enabling the creation and facilitation of interactions between governments (G2G) and between governments and businesses (G2B) in relation to digital ecosystems.
However, according to the authors, in adopting APIs governments can also encounter risks and challenges, including cybersecurity issues, missing API governance structures, the difficulty in adopting proper legal instruments to adhere to current regulation, the lack of an API culture and the need for agile platforms to adapt digital public services provision to a rapidly evolving society. To tackle these issues, this study has developed a basic API framework for governments. It provides a cohesive, coordinated approach to APIs that deals with the problems and complexity that result from ad hoc implementation of APIs. It frames existing efforts within a more coordinated suite of activities including (i) the alignment of API adoption with policy goals, (ii) the creation of platforms and ecosystems based on APIs, (iii) the organisation of teams and the development of an API culture and (iv) designing processes based on API best practices.
The study concludes that APIs are essential enablers of the transformation towards digital governments according to three main characteristics of API solutions: they are modular, reusable and easily scalable (near-zero marginal cost solutions).
Based on these enabling characteristics, the main findings of the study can be summarised as follows:
- APIs are a foundational technological solution that requires attention in digital government agendas.
- APIs can assist governments in steering the organisational change management of digitalisation.
- APIs foster innovation in public administration processes and public service provision.
- API solutions facilitate governments’ digital interactions with internal (G2G) and external (G2C and G2B, as well as the reverse: C2G and B2G) actors.
- API adoption carries budgetary, organisational costs and important challenges.
- Multiple API-related activities are occurring at the European Union institutions level, within Member States and at regional and city government levels
According to the authors APIs and proper API strategies have to be adopted to support the new Commission priorities and policies at the EU level. Governments should incorporate APIs into their digital strategies to support these policy goals. To do so, this paper suggests considering the adoption of the API framework summarised in this document and fully described in the dedicated technical report. Given that the maturity of digital government structures is uneven, the framework has been designed to be flexible enough to help governments identify the specific actions they need to focus on. These actions are structured into four areas: (i) aligning API adoption with policy goals, (ii) building platforms and ecosystems based on APIs, (iii) organising teams and developing an API culture and (iv) developing processes based on API best practices.
The authors’ key recommendations include the following:
- Explicitly adopt APIs to support the new Commission priorities and EU and Member State policies.
- Create and improve the API culture in governments, including the creation of best practices and guidelines in specific fields.
- Adopt the proposed API framework to orient government API and digital government strategies.
- Become digital ecosystem aware. Engaging both EU governments and the private sector is fundamental to developing and designing interoperable government IT platforms that link multiple stakeholders.
This report is organised in eight sections. The introduction (Section 1) gives a basic definition of APIs and describes the study motivation and methodology. The following sections illustrate the ‘who’ (Section 2), ‘what’ (Section 3), ‘why’ (Section 4), ‘how’ (Section 5) and ‘where’ (Section 6) of government APIs. The report also presents a set of policy recommendation (Section 7) and the final section presents the main conclusions of the study (Section 8). The report targets IT managers, decision-makers and policymakers.
You can find the report here.