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Platform comes to Washington

Scott Morrison

We all want our government to be better. We want more services, better services, and we want it delivered more affordably. Politicians come and go, policies change and new budgets are tabled, but in the end we are left with a haunting and largely unanswerable question: Did our representatives make 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 is the recent publication of a memo titled “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 other social networks, 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 have to admit, I was not overly optimistic about what I might find inside this report. These publications seemed designed to disappoint -- however strong the motives, they too often neglect the concrete steps toward execution in favor of watered down consultant-speak (i.e. “we will become more agile”).

But this time, I was pleasantly surprised. This report is accessible, well-informed and insightful. The authors recognize that mobility+cloud+Web API+decentralized identity is an equation of highly interrelated parts, and in summation, it is the catalyst for today’s new Internet renaissance. The work is not without its platitudes, but even these it bolsters with a pragmatic road map identifying actions, the parties’ responsible, and – gasp -- even deadlines. It’s actually better than most of the business plans I’ve read.

The important insight in this report is that to be effective in the future, information delivery must become device agnostic. The last 20 years has been a story told through a Web browser; the next 20 will be a story about mobile communications and machines talking to other machines. We can only navigate this future path by coming to understand just why the Web has worked so well, and then applying these lessons to problems more sophisticated than browsing pictures on Lolcats.

But what really distinguishes the 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 echoes Jeff Bezos’ directives a decade ago within Amazon (as relayed in Steve Yegge’s now infamous rant on Google+):

“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.

Platform is a tremendously important idea because it demands that the design of every application recognize that it may be just one piece of a larger puzzle. Each piece may provide value on its own, but its greater value is realized when it becomes part of a bigger system. The Web API is a simple-by-design interface for tying these components together quickly and efficiently. This is the insight for which we can thank the social networks, and we can credit this for a re-energized Silicon Valley.

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.

Scott Morrison is the chief technology officer at Layer 7 Technologies. He can be reached at:

smorrison@layer7.com