“Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired. Thank you; have a nice day!” This was the conclusion of a 2002 memo sent by Jeff Bezos to the whole of Amazon.

Bezos didn’t want to build a bookstore, he wanted an e-commerce powerhouse. There would be e-books; there would be movies; there would be hardware. All of these units needed a single view of the Amazon customer.

Bezos’ memo demanded that all teams create a common set of rules that allow other teams to access their data automatically. “There will be no other form of inter-process communication allowed,” he said. Employees couldn’t email to request information, they must use a common method of sharing information across the company. If data is water, then teams went from visiting the well to internal plumbing.

The common rules he demanded are called APIs – Application Programming Interfaces – and Gartner has made them a key part of its 2016 Digital Government hype cycle. GovInsider has explained what they are, and why they’re so important for service delivery.

What are APIs?

Quite simply, APIs create a method for other people to build their services on top of your data and infrastructure.

Take Grab Taxi. They don’t use their own mapping software – they borrow from Google Maps. An API lets them pull that data straight into a taxi app (for a fee). Equally, Grab uses Paypal for payments – an API lets them interact with that system rather than create a separate digital checkout.

APIs “fundamentally reduce the time and effort” for developers to scale their digital products, says Um Sungyong, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Computing, Department of Information Systems.

Why are they important?

If governments create APIs for its services, they can transform the digital experience of citizens. APIs open up the potential of government services to be combined in new and useful ways. Bus routes could be combined with house prices and crime hotspots, for instance.

And as governments build predictive services, these APIs become more important. Services can quickly pull information from across government – matching Amazon’s success in predicting what other books you’ll be interested in.

What is happening in the region on this?

The Singapore Government used APIs to build its OneService complaints app. This tool allows citizens to complain about problems in parks, transport, housing – all of which are managed by different agencies.

An “API Gateway” feeds complaints data to the right place, and then give the user updates on how the complaint is progressing through the system.

Each department stores data in a different way. If government hadn’t used APIs, they would have needed a new system that combined citizen data from across government. That would have taken “take two years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and with no guarantee it’s going to succeed”, Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer, told GovInsider. This app took 6 months to create.

Meanwhile, the UKs digital service used APIs to build a cross-government communications platform. Gov.UK Notify allows agencies to text, email and send letters to citizens – allowing better coordination.

And in Australia, a leading voice in digital government – Pia Waugh – has called for ‘Government as an API’ – an approach that sees everything open by default. “Unless we make government data, content and transaction services API enabled and mashable, then we are simply improving upon the status quo,” she wrote in her blog. Waugh thinks that APIs allow government to create a more citizen-centric view, rather than a department-centric model of delivery.

APIs require departments to open up their data, and need investment to code them in the first place. But they will transform how government does business with citizens.

Digital services will move from adequate to Amazon.

Image by Ash Carter, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image shows Jeff Bezos speaking to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in a tour of the Pentagon