The Role of APIs in Digital Government Context

The ability to exchange data and share services between government entities and authorities is a requirement for digitised public services.

Feb 21, 2023

Connecting information systems, applications, and registers, exchanging data, and sharing services are essential requirements for any digital service. Government and the public sector are no exception. The ability to exchange data and share services between government entities and authorities is a must-have requirement when public services are digitised. Also, the need is not limited to data exchange capabilities between government entities since the ability to exchange data and share services between public and private sectors is evenly essential.

Digital transformation is converting or substituting analogue processes with their digital counterparts. One of the goals of digitising public services is to reduce administrative burden and provide citizens with streamlined digital processes spanning multiple administration sectors. From a citizen’s point of view, it means no more filling in paper forms and visiting different government offices. The required information is exchanged in the background automatically between the concerned authorities without further involvement of the citizen. This results in a single, streamlined online process that hides the underlying complexity from the citizen. Besides, it significantly reduces manual work required from different authorities and enables the development of new services. Getting there is impossible without sharing data and services between authorities and the public and private sectors.

APIs play an essential role in digital government services.

Different shades of interoperability

The ability of information systems to exchange and utilise information is known as interoperability. Unlike what it may first sound like, interoperability is not only about technology and technical connectivity. On the contrary, interoperability consists of different layers that also include technology. The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) defines four layers of interoperability:

  • legal – aligned legislation
  • organisational – coordinated processes
  • semantical – precise meaning of exchanged information
  • technical – connecting information systems and services

All four layers are equally important when building digital services and processes. In addition, challenges in one layer are often reflected in other layers. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of all the layers and not neglect them.

  • technical – connecting information systems and services

All four layers are equally important when building digital services and processes. In addition, challenges in one layer are often reflected in other layers. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of all the layers and not neglect them.


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Data exchange scenarios

When it comes to a public sector organisation exchanging information, three top-level data exchange scenarios can be recognised:

  • internal – data exchange within an organisation
  • national – data exchange on a national level
  • cross-border – international data exchange

The same rules, laws, and regulations don’t apply to national and cross-border data exchange, which is why they are two separate scenarios instead of a single “external” scenario. Cross-border data exchange between authorities usually requires both state-level agreements and data exchange agreements between the data exchange parties.

The common factor between the scenarios is that all three require certain technical base elements, including but not limited to connectivity, secure communication protocols, interfaces, and integration services. The more standardised these elements are, the less work is required to build new connections between information systems and services. Instead, if there is no commonly agreed solution to connect information systems and manage the connections securely, the result is probably a jungle of point-to-point connections. It means agreeing on the connection details and then building the connections whenever a new connection is needed – and doing so repeatedly.

However, even if the technical base elements in all the scenarios are the same, they are usually implemented using different technical solutions and technologies. Implementing a standardised connectivity layer within an organisation is generally based on other technology than a standardised connectivity layer with external parties.

The good news is that there are already technical solutions and building blocks available that can be used for secure data exchange in different scenarios. Instead of reinventing the wheel and building everything from scratch, it is possible to use off-the-shelf, battle-proven solutions that have already been successfully used in multiple implementations. For example, eDelivery is the building block of the European Commission for cross-border data exchange between the EU Member States. At the same time, X-Road® is open-source software and ecosystem solution that provides unified and secure data exchange on a national level.


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The once-only principle

The once-only principle (TOOP) is a digital government concept initiated by the European Union (EU), whose aim is that citizens, organisations, and companies provide certain information to authorities and administrations only once. The data is then reused by sharing it between the authorities that have a right to access it. In this way, the information is collected and stored only once. In practice, if specific information is already collected and stored by one authority, another authority that needs the same information should query it from the owning authority instead of asking it again from the citizen.

The basic idea behind TOOP sounds simple but implementing it in practice is more complicated. First, it requires accessibility and interoperability of base registers and other related information systems and services. Implementing TOOP is impossible without APIs – they are needed to enable data exchange between the authorities. In addition to APIs, successful implementation requires a secure data exchange solution, unified data models, and semantic interoperability across different information systems and applications. Otherwise, utilising the data is challenging. Besides technical questions, there are also legal and administrative issues that must be considered.

Cross-border data exchange

Technically, cross-border data exchange should not differ from data exchange on a national level. APIs enable data exchange across borders, just like within a single country. However, in practice, there are probably more differences in the APIs between authorities of two countries than between two authorities of the same country because some sort of guidelines is likely to exist nationally. Generally, API guidelines and best practices are global and utilise various internet standards. However, the challenge is that many commonly used guidelines and practices are not official standards, leading to differences in implementation between authorities and countries. This does not prevent the data exchange, but the implementation requires more effort.

When it comes to the bigger picture, APIs alone are not enough for the implementation of successful cross-border data exchange. Like TOOP, it also requires secure data exchange solutions, compatible data models, and semantic interoperability. Also, legal and administrative questions play a significant role – often, their part is even greater than technical questions. There may be legal barriers, and in many cases, agreements and contracts are required at two levels – between the countries whose authorities exchange data and between the parties that implement the data exchange in practice.


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Not a silver bullet

APIs play an essential role in digital government services. Without them, many of today’s and tomorrow’s digital services would not be possible or would require a considerable amount of work in the form of custom integrations. Therefore, APIs are a key enabler in digital transformation. Still, other vital elements are also needed in addition to APIs, such as secure data exchange solutions, unified data models, and semantic interoperability. These areas can and should be considered when APIs are designed and implemented. Interoperability on a broader scale requires standards, common guidelines, practices, and collaboration across administration sectors, borders, and public and private sectors.

Interoperability is not just about technology – it includes legal, organisational, and semantical layers as well. The other layers are equally important and require collaboration across administration sectors and borders. Otherwise, there is a risk that innovations cannot be utilised, or they can be used only partly because of legal or administrative restrictions.

All in all, APIs are one of the key enablers in the digital government context. Still, they are not a silver bullet alone enough to resolve all the interoperability challenges. Collaboration in all areas of interoperability and the use of open standards, frameworks, and open-source solutions are the key to success.

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