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Embracing the API-economy to transform public sector outcomes

Carlos Oliveira Carlos Oliveira on 27 October 2018
3 minute read

Let’s start with a couple of questions. How many pay-by-phone parking apps do you currently have on your mobile phone? If you are like me and you spend a good proportion of your time driving around the country then I would say you will have at least three or four. Second question: can you remember the painful experience of trying to get each of those parking apps set up for the first time when you are in a new location? You have to register your vehicle, register your payment method and put in the correct location code, all whilst trying to rush to your next appointment.

Now picture this – you drive to a new town or city in the UK, you park your car, you open your favourite parking app and you press “Park.” Instead of being forced to use the parking app that the council has chosen for you, you get to chose whichever one you believe offers you the best and most friction-free experience.

SMEs <3 APIs

This is a really simple example of the kinds of opportunities that would be enabled by local government adopting an API-first approach in a standard and unified way. If each council agreed to provide a standardised Parking API that third party developers can then leverage, it would create a true competition within that eco-system of vendors where the primary driver is the citizen experience and not their ability to negotiate favourable terms with each different local authority. It is a true Win:Win:Win – better citizen experience, less overhead for the council and it will encourage SMEs to enter the market with new innovations.

Now consider if you could expand that approach across all of local government – standard API’s for Council Tax, business rates, bin collection, housing benefits, etc. Every council is mandated to deliver the same core services, yet currently they each approach them in different ways which stifles the market and means that only a handful of suppliers are able to operate in many of these areas. By embracing the API economy councils would immediately unlock a huge amount of innovation in the market. Imagine the scenario: you are a new start-up business with some really clever technology, let’s say Machine Learning that can detect fraud. If you asses the local government market, there is a huge need for this kind of technology but as a supplier you know that it requires you to go and have 400 different conversations in 400 different local authorities and then in each one of those authorities the data that your software needs in order to work is stored in totally different ways, meaning each roll-out is unique and bespoke. This is a huge barrier to entry right now for SMEs and often that supplier ends up taking their technology into other sectors, such as banking and insurance, where standards exist. This barrier could be completely overcome if councils agreed on a standard set of APIs.

There are already plenty of examples of how an API-first approach is transforming the public sector. TfL were one of the first to embrace opening up their data via APIs and a recent impact report from GovLab states that over 350 apps have since been built using that data.

It is possible to conclude that TfL have so far saved between £15m-£42m through opening raw data to the app market, rather than developing all its apps in-house.: GovLab – Global Impact of Open Data Report

The same path is now being followed by other Central Government departments, with HMRC in particular embracing an API-first approach that has encouraged hundreds of suppliers and start-ups into their developer programme and saving them hundreds of millions of pounds in what would have been in-house development costs.

So, the business case is proven, the technology is established and thriving in other sectors. It’s now time for local government to come together and standardise on an approach for deploying APIs and unlocking so much of the disruptive innovation that is currently on the outside looking in, unable to access the market in a scalable and cost-effective way.


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Carlos Oliveira
Carlos Oliveira

Founder of SPINR, Carlos has been advocating how the use of a SOA approach based around API’s can provide the platform for true digital transformation. Aside from SPINR he is also the Chair of the techUK Local Public Services Committe that aims to improve the engagment between the public sector and the IT industry.