In the following blogpost, we present API best practices that have had a positive impact on the fostering and utilisation of APIs in the public sectors of France, Italy, and Singapore. Our analyses are based on expert interviews with representatives of the countries’ respective public sector API projects, which our German team held for its recent report on the opportunities presented by APIs (only available in German).
APIs in the public sector
APIs – which stands for Application Programming Interfaces – can greatly support the interoperability between public and private sector organisations like GovTech startups. They provide functions which help developers automate the exchange of data and information between applications or systems. Through the use of APIs, complex processes that may involve several actors or systems can be digitised efficiently, supporting collaboration and innovation.
Challenges for the public sector
Public sector organisations have to overcome challenges in four areas when seeking to systematically foster and utilise APIs: Security and data protection, API standards, API discovery and multi-stakeholder alignment.
For example, the identification of all existing APIs in a country’s public sector, the heterogeneity of the country’s public sector API landscape, and public organisations’ willingness to share APIs with other departments are common pitfalls that have also posed challenges to the UK’s public sector.
The UK has sought to address these through a decentralised API catalogue management concept that envisions not the creation of one big catalogue, but rather a collection of smaller, department-specific catalogues referring to one another. Moreover, the Data Standards Authority publishes comprehensive, user-friendly and non-binding API guiding documents that suggest standards and are regularly updated. Thereby, the guiding documents create capacities and guardrails for the further adoption of APIs in the UK’s public sector without unnecessarily restricting innovation processes.
Overview of the international API best practices
Looking across the case studies of Italy, France and Singapore that our German team conducted alongside an assessment of the UK’s utilisation of public sector APIs, six general best practices can be derived. These best practices have had a positive influence on the promotion and use of APIs in at least two of these four countries.
Best Practice #1 – API standards
Uniform APIs can be combined and integrated with each other more easily. Hence, in the long run, standards defining the architecture, specification or implementation of APIs create opportunities for leveraging synergies between them.
While the UK has thus far focused on the specification of optional API guidance, Italy and Singapore are in the process of going a step further to also concretely specify certain functions (e.g., relating to access management) that have to exist across all public sector APIs.
Best Practice #2 – API catalogue
An API catalogue helps internal and external actors identify and use relevant public sector APIs. The later an API catalogue is created, the more cumbersome the task of integrating all existing APIs into it becomes. The UK, Italy, France and Singapore bundle their APIs in an API catalogue.
Best Practice #3 – Decentralised catalogue management and -infrastructure
A decentralised catalogue helps create tools through which organisations can publish and manage APIs themselves. Furthermore, it addresses potential concerns of authorities and simplifies the identification and collection of existing and new APIs across authorities.
The UK and Singapore have implemented decentralised management concepts for their API catalogues. As of today, Singapore has gone a step further than the UK by creating a central API catalogue and management platform (APEX) that efficiently provides all public sector organisations with the tools they need to specify, release, communicate, update, and manage access to their own APIs.
Best Practice #4 – Central organisational and financial resources
The creation of central organisational and financial resources supports the implementation of an adopted API strategy.
France and the UK have created organisational resources such as dedicated API teams and guidance documents. Italy, meanwhile, has also created dedicated financial resources supporting particularly regional authorities in the creation of new APIs. This step was taken because regional financial constraints held back the implementation of the country’s API strategy for many years.
Best Practice #5 – Connecting APIs and digital identities
The unified consideration and treatment of public APIs on the one hand and digital identity systems on the other hand creates important synergy effects. Firstly, APIs that allow the reuse of digital identity systems are often one of the most valuable building blocks for innovative private sector solutions. Secondly, the combination of digital identity systems and APIs enables efficient management of access authorisations for public sector APIs (API management).
Italy, France and Singapore are succeeding in connecting digital identities and APIs in a systematic fashion. For example, Singapore’s digital identity API ecosystem “SingPass” provides identification functionality to more than 2.400 private sector services, while also being used to enable effective API management on the APEX platform.
Best Practice #6 – Legislative anchoring
Italy and France have found success by creating legal mandates requiring public sector organisations to share data or open up APIs. These mandates support the work of these countries’ API teams by bestowing them with additional legitimacy.
The Italian directive contains an explicit mechanism for evaluating public sector organisations in terms of their performance on sharing data and opening up APIs, and further contains a mechanism for sanctioning those organisations who perform poorly.
Every country’s public sector is different, as are the needs. Yet, when it comes to leveraging the innovative potential of APIs, the six best practices we highlight above can serve as useful guideposts. In particular, the UK might further enhance its current public sector API strategy by scoping the adoption of (1) practices relating to API standards, financial resources, and legislative anchoring of APIs from Italy, and (2) of practices relating to the provision of a comprehensive technical infrastructure supporting the decentralised API catalogue, as well as the connection of APIs and digital identities from Singapore.
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