How APIs enable e-government

Paying parking tickets on the web is convenient, but API-fication is the real trigger of an e-government platform

parking ticket

Pre-digital-era French parking ticket

Credit: Frédéric Bisson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A few weeks ago, as a director of Tech In France, I was invited to a fireside chat with the French "State CIO" (the French acronym is DISINC) Henri Verdier. Pushing aside from the usual controversies on the neutrality of Internet, open season on GAFAs and Safe Harbor/Privacy Shield, an interesting topic that Verdier discussed is the APIfication of public service in France.

Digitalization, with or without simplification?

Like many other developed (and less-developed) countries, France has undertaken a digitalization of its citizen services. And indeed, in the past few years, French citizens have been able to do more and more online: from tax filing to voter's registration, from fine payment to social housing application, just to name a few. But doing more online also requires creating accounts with a myriad of state and local agencies, scanning and uploading gigabytes of documents and eligibility proofs. In its first incarnation, digitalization certainly saved on queuing and postage, but did little to really simplify life.

I suspect many countries are in a similar situation. When I enter the U.S. now I interact with a machine instead of (or, more often, before) talking to a charming CBP agent. And the City of San Francisco has a rather efficient parking ticket payment system -- but there stops my personal exposure to online U.S. services.

Recently, I came upon a plan by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to release its APIs for patent data into the wild. Clearly an interesting move, that can only foster open innovation and new applications of gigantic corpus of ideas and technologies -- assuming this release is done right, with the proper data structure and tools to use these APIs. Like most open data initiatives, whether mandated in some countries or the result of belief in the freedom of information, providing unfiltered access to data that essentially belongs to the public domain is a major step toward a more open and digitalized society.

APIs as a platform for services

The approach described by French CIO Verdier is actually going one step further. His agency just released the first French API portal: API.gouv.fr, a portal of APIs offered to government agencies but also private enterprises to embed government services. Combined with a digital identity platform (dubbed France Connect, a kind of SSO for citizens) the admitted goal is to platformize the State, offering citizens composite digital services, regardless of which agency offers the actual service. Now we are talking simplification!

An example Verdier provided that I found very interesting is the following. In certain cities, you can apply for a parking permit that gives you a discount on meter rates. Usually, to get this permit you need to prove you pay taxes in the city, and the (old) way to do this was to provide a copy of your tax filings -- with a bunch of confidential information such as your salary, family situation, etc. With France Connect and the "API Particulier" from the portal, your city hall clerk can confirm you are indeed paying taxes. Even better, the city's online parking permit application site can do it.

Estonian e-Residency

Launched in 2015, Estonia's e-Residency program was then highlighted as the first-of-its-kind government platform, built entirely online, Complete with digital signatures and authentication, the program enables e-residents to digitally sign documents and contracts, encrypt and transmit documents securely, establish an Estonian company online, declare taxes online, etc. A year later, with 10,000 e-residents, the program remains an interesting option to establish a business in the European Union.

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