June 7th, 2012

Platform Comes to Washington

Digital GovernmentEveryone wants his or her government to be better. We want more services, better services and we want them delivered cheaper. Politicians come and go, policies change, new budgets are tabled but in the end we are left with a haunting and largely unanswerable question: Are things better or worse than they were before?

One thing that is encouraging and has the potential to trigger disruptive change to the delivery of government services in the US is the recent publication Digital Government: Building a 21st-Century Platform to Better Serve the American People. The word to note here is platform –  it seems that government has taken a page from Facebook, Twitter and the others and embraced the idea that efficient information delivery is not about a carefully-rendered Web page but instead is really a logical consequence of developing an open platform.

I confess to some dread on my first encounter with this report. These publications are usually disheartening products of weaselly management consultant speak refined through the cloudy lens of a professional bureaucrat (“we will be more agile”). But in this instance, the reverse was true: this report is accessible and surprisingly insightful. The authors understand that Mobile+Cloud+Web API+decentralized identity is an equation of highly interrelated parts that, in summation, is the catalyst for the new Internet renaissance. The work is not without its platitudes but even these it bolsters with a pragmatic road map identifying actions, parties responsible and (gasp) even deadlines. It’s actually better than most business plans I’ve read.

Consider this paragraph clarifying just what the report means when it calls for an information-centric approach to architecture:

An information-centric approach decouples information from its presentation. It means beginning with the data or content, describing that information clearly, and then exposing it to other computers in a machine-readable format—commonly known as providing web APIs. In describing the information, we need to ensure it has sound taxonomy (making it searchable) and adequate metadata (making it authoritative). Once the structure of the information is sound, various mechanisms can be built to present it to customers (e g websites, mobile applications, and internal tools) or raw data can be released directly to developers and entrepreneurs outside the organization. This approach to opening data and content means organizations can consume the same web APIs to conduct their day-to-day business and operations as they do to provide services to their customers.

See what I mean? It’s well done.

The overall goal is to outline an information delivery strategy that is fundamentally device agnostic. Its authors fully recognize the growing importance of mobility and concede that mobility means much more than the mobile platforms — iOS and Android, among others — that have commandeered the word today. Tomorrow’s mobility will describe a significant shift in the interaction pattern between producers and consumers of information. Mobility is not a technological instance in time (and in particular, today).

But what really distinguishes this report from being just a well-researched paper echoing the zeitgeist of computing’s cool kids is how prescriptive it is in declaring how government will achieve these goals. The demand that agencies adopt Web APIs is a move that echos Jeff Bezos’ directives a decade ago within eBay (as relayed in Steve Yegge’s now infamous rant):

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

It was visionary advice then and it is even more valid now. It recognizes that the commercial successes attributed to the Web API approach suggest that just maybe we have finally hit upon a truth in how system integration should occur.

Of course, memos are easy to ignore — unless they demand concrete actions within limited time frames. Here, the time frames are aggressive (and that’s a good thing). Within six months, the Office of Management & Budget must “Issue government-wide open data, content, and web API policy and identify standards and best practices for improved interoperability.” Within 12 months, each government agency must “Ensure all new IT systems follow the open data, content, and web API policy and operationalize agency gov/developer pages” and also “optimize at least two existing priority customer-facing services for mobile use and publish a plan for improving additional existing services.”

If the recent allegations regarding the origins of the Stuxnet worm are accurate, then the President clearly understands the strategic potential of the modern Internet. I would say this report is a sign his administration also clearly understands the transformational potential of APIs and mobility, when applied to government.

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