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The Composable Government Agency: Citizen Development, Packaged Business Capabilities and No-Code/Low-Code Microservices

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

By Bill Brantley
June 14, 2021

Imagine building a government office, department or agency by connecting a set of business processes and technical processes like a set of LEGOS™ bricks. Offices, departments or even agencies can be built within weeks to respond to a crisis or opportunity. And, instead of building the government agency from scratch, the agency can be created from proven business and technical processes to ensure quality government service delivery and efficient internal operations. Thanks to the new digital transformation tools and methods, building enterprises quickly with mature, tested business processes is possible.

Composable Enterprise™

Jonathan Murray wrote about the composable enterprise™ in 2013. “Business functions, processes, organizations, supplier relationships and technology need to be seen as building blocks that can be reconfigured as needed to address changing competitive landscape.” Murray describes two parts of the composable enterprise™ model—the Component Operating Model (COM) and the Component Architecture Model (CAM). The COM is a collection of business processes and the organizations that support the business processes. The CAM is the information technology architecture to support the COM. “The time between identifying a business need and delivering the required IT solution needs to become hours and days rather than months and years.” Add COM and CAM together, and you have, “Enterprise-as-a-service” (EAAS).

Packaged Business Capabilities

According to Gartner, packaged business capabilities are, “Software components representing a well-defined business capability.” For example, the shopping cart process on many online e-commerce sites can be considered a packaged business capability. Another packaged business capability (PBC) is the online registration process used to sign up for a training course. According to Tony Harris of DreamFactory (a PBC provider), the defining characteristics of PBCs are, “Small scope, fully autonomous and consumed as a whole by the end-user.” PBCs are an essential part of the composable enterprise™ because they supply the components for the COM and CAM parts of the composable enterprise™. So, how are PBCs created?

Microservices

Microservices are software functions that provide a limited set of services through an application programming interface (API). Think of the shopping cart PBC example. Several microservices make up the shopping cart PBC; the microservice that lists the items from the catalog, the microservice that calculates prices and the microservice that processes the credit card. The microservices communicate through the APIs by sending and receiving data from each other. Microservices are loosely coupled, so it is easy to swap out microservices in the PBCs, just like swapping fuses in a fuse box.

No-Code/Low-Code Citizen Developer

I’ve written before about the power of citizen development in government. Citizen developers create IT applications using software tools that can create apps and microservices without knowing how to program. The citizen developers can import a spreadsheet of data and use a drag-and-drop graphical tool to build the microservice or mobile app visually. During the 2020 quarantine, some federal workers used no-code/low-code tools to build mission-critical applications.

One example is the Telehealth Grants Application. A federal agency built the application to manage grants to healthcare providers that used telehealth to serve patients quarantined at home. “Because it was built using low-code, the team didn’t have to spend time developing custom components and code. Instead they focused on business requirements, transparency and oversight and the timely delivery of funding to providers.

Another example is how the State Department used a no-code platform to quickly build nearly a dozen mission-critical apps to help in the COVID-19 response. According to the Deputy CIO in charge of the project, “[b]efore it would have taken us months to figure out the application requirements and then go back to development. But, with these low-code platform-based services, we’re able to iterate on those almost instantaneously.

The Composable Government Agency

What would a composable government agency look like? Think of how government programs could be decomposed into packaged business components and microservices. Imagine a repository of government agency packaged business components and microservices, many of which are created by federal employees who are citizen developers. Instead of building agency business processes from scratch, government agencies can choose the most effective PBCs and microservices to construct the COM and CAM of the composable government agency.

Governments are under pressure to transform digitally. However, according to a 2018 study by the Everest Group, four out of five digital transformation projects fail. A significant reason for the failure rate is the traditional process of large-scale IT development projects. Imagine the type of projects where it takes months to years to deliver an IT product to users with little input into the final shape of the IT products. Shifting to a composable enterprise™ approach could offer the user input and agile speed that government agencies need to better serve the agencies’ employees and the American citizens.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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