How Microservices Can Help Build a More Responsive Government

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Thinking small can make a big difference in improving citizen services.

Ugorji Nwoke is the client architect at MuleSoft.

Citizen expectations are rising fast, in large part due to the experiences provided by private-sector disruptors like Amazon, Google and Apple. While Amazon plans to use drones to deliver products directly to customers’ doorsteps, most government agencies still don’t provide an easy way for citizens to get quick responses on government websites.  

Citizens expect transparency, accessibility and responsiveness from government services, and those expectations are only rising as the private sector continues to innovate along these lines. In a 2016 Accenture survey, 85 percent of U.S. citizens said they expect “the same or higher quality” from government digital services as they do from commercial organizations. Furthermore, these expectations have extended beyond the citizens that government serves to the employees working within government itself, as well as those serving in the armed forces. They’re all demanding digital services commensurate with what’s offered in the private sector.

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This, in turn, has turned up the pressure on government agencies to deliver on an increasing number of digital projects, without increased budget to support these evolving expectations. This increase has been compounded by the convergence of technological megatrends—namely cloud, software as a service, mobile, internet of things and big data. With inflexible budgets, government IT teams are being forced to do more with less, and it’s not sustainable.

For government IT teams to keep pace with citizen and employee expectations, they must increase IT agility without compromising security.

The first step to achieve this goal is to think small and leverage microservices.

Speed Up Project Delivery

In government, it’s common for key data, services and applications to be siloed within legacy systems. Making changes to the applications running on these systems can be a monumental undertaking spanning months—or even years—strangling agility and increasing costs. As a result, many have started to explore ways to modernize legacy systems, and microservices represent one of the most promising avenues for innovation.

With a microservices architecture, monolithic legacy systems are broken down into a set of smaller independent services that are developed, deployed, maintained and consumed separately. Moving forward, when processes are changed or when new ones are introduced, IT can quickly respond by re-wiring services into new compositions, instead of picking out code from a monolithic application to adapt to modern requirements.

Microservices architectures also enable accelerated project delivery by facilitating easier reuse. Within government, there are many tasks like the provisioning of hardware and software that are both repetitive and common across agencies. So long as these microservices are easily discoverable across teams, reuse can produce enormous IT gains, since as a function of their smaller scope, microservices can be used across a much larger variety of projects and business contexts.

Enable Secure Data Exchange

Government agencies increasingly have to coordinate together in order to deliver on their mission and provide quality citizen experiences. However, government IT teams historically had to grapple with balancing the need to support collaboration by opening up access to systems, or shared services, and the need to ensure that the underlying data remains secure. Naturally, government has historically erred on the side of security, creating challenges for agencies looking to access each other's data and slowing the delivery of IT projects.

Furthermore, security itself has grown in complexity due to the proliferation of applications that have entered the agency IT ecosystem. Each new app requires and enables access to organizational data and assets, and unless the security team was explicitly involved in the app’s creation, acquisition and delivery, users inside and outside the organization may have access to data and the ability to expose it without the knowledge of central IT.

With a microservices architecture, each microservice can be exposed via an API that serves as a standardized, well-defined entry point that is easy to visualize and secure. As a result, API policies can be applied to securing these APIs, thereby governing access to the underlying microservice data. And while microservices architectures can accelerate the sharing of data within and outside an agency, the API contract intrinsic to the microservice allows agencies to have the best of both worlds, supporting increased project delivery speed without compromising security.

The Critical Role of APIs

When implementing a microservices architecture, decomposing a monolithic application into constituent microservices is only the start. The benefits of this approach will be lost if IT does not center the approach around APIs to allow for services to be accessed and reused across the enterprise, and governed in a consistent manner.

Implemented correctly, APIs enable government to realize the increases in agility that microservices promise. Doing so will allow agencies to meet—and even exceed—the private sector in the quality of service it provides citizens, building a more efficient, cost-effective and responsive government.

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