API Primer for Contracting Officers
The purpose of this primer is to familiarize Contracting Officers (COs) with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in order to aid in the acquisition process.
An API is a set of routines, protocols, and tools that enable third-party software programs to interact with an application. Simply put, an API allows at least two different IT systems to communicate and share information with one another. Most modern digital services are built on top of a wide range of APIs. This allows each part of the service to focus on its core functionality rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.
APIs allow the government to:
- Decrease costs;
- Enable modularity of systems, which enables modular contracting;
- Allow reusability and eliminate duplication;
- Standardize the exchange of understandable groupings of information;
- Increase the speed, efficiency and dependability of communications;
- Accelerate the adoption of new technologies;
- Increase competition and reduce dependence on the incumbent contractor.
On March 23, 2012, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum (Digital Government Strategy) on building a 21st century digital government. The Digital Government Strategy sets out to accomplish three things: 1) Enable the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device. 2) Ensure that as the government adjusts to this new digital world, we seize the opportunity to procure and manage devices, applications, and data in smart, secure and affordable ways. 3) Unlock the power of government data to spur innovation across our Nation and improve the quality of services for the American people.
The memorandum establishes a conceptual model that acknowledges the three “layers” of digital services. The “information layer” contains digital information. The “platform layer” includes all the systems and processes used to manage this information. The “presentation layer” defines the manner in which information is organized and provided to customers. APIs are a crucial part of building the “platform layer” as envisioned in the Digital Government Strategy.
APIs allow systems to share information, both within the government and with the public. APIs are a powerful tool for opening government content and data effectively, efficiently, and accessibly to agencies and citizens.
The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires that agencies control and mitigate risks for IT acquisitions (FAR 39.102(a)). One risk mitigation technique recommended by the FAR is modular contracting (FAR 39.102(c)).
The FAR highlights several benefits and advantages of modular contracting ((FAR 39.102(b))):
- Smaller acquisitions are easier to manage individually than one monolithic acquisition;
- Addresses complex technology objectives incrementally:
- Enhance likelihood of a workable system;
- Allow for testing to occur earlier in the development cycle;
- Provide the opportunity for subsequent improvements based on evolving technology;
- Reduce risk by isolating and avoiding custom-designed components
- Leverage vendors’ core competencies (e.g. avoid jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none)
APIs enable modularity of IT systems, which enables modular contracting.
For example, imagine a program office has a requirement for a database modernization. The program office needs a database system to undergo a significant overhaul and upgrade as well as an updated user interface for accessing information stored in the database. A program office might be inclined to have a single vendor complete both the database overhaul and the user interface update. However, it is possible to split the requirement into two, where one vendor provides the database overhaul, and another vendor provides the user interface update. APIs allow for these two systems to be developed separately, by different vendors. So long as the vendor that is working on the database overhaul builds an API, the user interface vendor can “connect” their application to the database.
By splitting up a single requirement into two requirements, the fate of one task becomes far less dependent on another. If the user interface update becomes a failed or underperforming task, the database overhaul is insulated from the failure. Moreover, by splitting up the requirement, a contracting office can expect to benefit from increased specialization by competing vendors. A vendor that specializes in designing high quality user interfaces, but lacks esoteric database skills, can now compete for the contract.
The FAR requires that contracting officers “shall promote and provide for full and open competition in soliciting offers and awarding Government contracts.”
APIs reduce dependence on the incumbent by decreasing the learning curve for any new vendors. Non-modular, monolithic systems increasingly create the need for specialized knowledge of the system. The more specialized knowledge required to work on a system, the smaller the pool of potential bidding vendors.
APIs reduce the amount of specialized knowledge required to work on a system by defining and documenting “interfaces” to a system. Such documentation reduces the amount of work a new vendor needs to get started on working on an existing system.
With a larger pool of potential bidding vendors, APIs can significantly increase the amount of competition for a contract.