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Meeting the Challenge of Government Microservices

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
March 14, 2017

Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis and blogs emerged around the same time then-Senator Obama was considering his run for the presidency. President Obama’s 2008 campaign harnessed the power of Web 2.0 to help him gain the White House. It was only natural that President Obama would continue to use the same Web 2.0 technologies to help him govern. As a noted technologist, Tim O’Reilly observed, Government 2.0 began in 2009 as agencies adopted social media, created data application programming interfaces (API) and held hackathons. Government 2.0 was the re-visioning of government as a platform.


Government as a Platform

According to Tim O’Reilly, Government 2.0 uses Web 2.0 collaborative technologies to help governments and citizens work together to solve problems. Government as a platform is where government convenes participants and enables citizens and third parties to create solutions from government data and services. Citizens actively co-create (sometimes leading the creation of) government services.

Government as a platform contrasts with the previous model of “vending machine government.” Government as a vending machine means government provides a predetermined menu of services from which the citizens choose. The solutions are solely created by the government with little or no citizen participation. Vending machine government worked in the days when collaboration technologies were limited to postal mail and town halls. However, in the days of instant and deep collaboration, government as a platform has increased the effectiveness and efficiency of government services.

The Rise of Microservices

API platforms arose from the technology that built Google, Facebook, Twitter and other collaborative services. APIs allowed computer programs to share data and interact with each other. For example, APIs built by the U.S. Census Bureau allows users to find and use census data in third-party applications. Mobile apps can pair Google Maps with Census data to provide demographic information about a particular neighborhood. There is an increasing demand for government agencies to provide their data in APIs as developers realize the value of government data in building mobile applications.

Private-sector and public-sector APIs are multi-billion dollar business in the American economy. Because of the vital economic importance of APIs, developers created microservices to mitigate the damage of failed APIs. Microservices are designed to perform only one function of the API. Each microservice is autonomous, independent, and self-contained. The theory is if a particular microservice fails, another microservice can quickly fill in and help the API continue to deliver data and services. Microservices work in a sort of ecosystem within the platform. If you have ever used Google Docs or watched a film on Netflix, you have used microservices.

Government Services as a collection of Microservices

At this point, you may wonder what do microservices have to do with government services? Continuing the analogy, if the U.S. Federal government is a platform and the agencies serve as APIs in that platform, then the services provided by the agencies are a collection of microservices. Viewing the Federal government through this analogy helps policymakers apply the lessons learned in creating and using microservices to design better and deliver government services.

Many government agencies follow Conway’s Law in that the agency’s organizational structure and ways of internally communicating reflect the services it provides to the public. For example, when I worked at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, we had organizational units that managed the retirement services, set pay and leave policy and managed the database of information about the civilian government workforce. These functions were further divided up into smaller organizational units down to a collection of microservices. This branching of functions into microservices led to the Inverse Conway’s Law.

In the microservice world, the teams that create and manage the microservices are, like the microservices, small, isolated and independent. Microservice teams can lead to silos and duplication of efforts which can be seen in many government agencies. Microservice teams also become increasingly specialized while becoming increasingly ignorant about their role in the organization’s overall strategy and mission. Competition for resources increases while communication between the teams plummets. Thus, the advantage of microservices is quickly erased by the organizational chaos caused by the creation of more and more microservices to handle the increasing demands for government services.

Cultivating the Government Ecosystem of Microservices

Companies like Uber have realized the advantages of using microservices by applying a gardening approach to the microservices ecosystem. Uber, Facebook, Google and other microservice-dependent companies require that microservices meet high architectural, organizational and operational standards. I suggest the Federal government use the same standards and lessons learned to help reform how government services are created and delivered. Doing so will fully realize the benefits of government as a platform.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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