Feds: You Don't Need Permission to Innovate


APIs allow employees to test out new ideas before taking them to the boss.

Many front-line federal workers have long expressed their frustrations about working in an agency or office culture that stifles innovation. But government is now entering a new era where feds no longer have to file a memo to their boss with a new idea, only to receive the dreaded response, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

Enter the third phase of the Digital Government Strategy: where cultural walls are kicked down in favor of collaboration, interoperability and openness. This is happening as agencies open up their data through application programming interfaces, or APIs, not only to private sector entrepreneurs but also to their own front-line employees, Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. chief technology officer and now advisor on the board of API company Apigee, told Wired Workplace last week.

“One of the things I observed before leaving the White House was as we started hosting these codeathons and hackathons that so much of the participation was actually driven by front-line workers volunteering their time in the off-hours,” Chopra said. “We saw this creativity and talent within agencies with APIs as agencies moved toward opening up their real-time data, and we started to see those front-line workers participate in a manner that they couldn’t before.”

Now, federal employees are able to take their ideas and test them out against agency APIs, Chopra said. Rather than filing a memo or going asking the boss for permission, employees can now demonstrate a prototype on the open API to show what’s possible. “We’re just scratching the surface of what this future might look like,” he said.

APIs also hold promise in lowering costs and spurring innovation, Chopra added. “Having an API opens up yet one more arrow in the quiver to achieve mission objective by tapping into external partners,” he said. “That is a way to achieve the mission objective in the equivalence of an off-balance-sheet resource.”

Under Chopra’s guidance, Apigee has created a free version of its cloud-based service for APIs that is available to federal agencies. These free tools can help agencies as they open up APIs to secure and track usage, said Sam Ramji, director of strategy at Apigee.

“As the federal government is now again open for business, it’s time to put APIs on the front foot and get open for data,” Ramji said. “It’s been a frustrating few weeks, but maybe they can put some of that frustration to good use.” 

(Image via Chones/Shutterstock.com)