Three letters Steven VanRoekel won’t say…yet UPDATED

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Maybe he doesn’t want to shock people, because it goes against his Midwestern sensibilities. But the three-letter term Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel has been avoiding in recent speeches just may be at the core of the forthcoming federal mobility strategy: API.

I’m increasingly convinced that APIs, or application program interfaces, will serve as the glue for the mobile, website and data reforms VanRoekel is alluding to (most recently in his expansive keynote address April 3 at FOSE).

If included in the strategy, a focus on APIs would be a fairly radical change. Perhaps the final turn on the secret decoder ring came this week, when he said, “We couple, in government, data and presentation together…it’s not machine readable in the way that other data can interact with it, and it’s sort of presented in a very closed way.”

VanRoekel went on to tell FOSE attendees that government should decouple data from the presentation layer into a more open, shareable form. Translation: Agencies should clean up the back-end data feeding their websites and mobile applications and turn them into APIs.

About a month ago, the Office of Management and Budget confirmed that the federal mobility strategy release would be pushed back, as it was morphing into a broader, “digital government strategy” combined with dot-gov reform efforts. Website consolidation has been underway for a few months, and VanRoekel says he is closely watching a similar initiative underway in the United Kingdom.

If OMB is taking notes from the U.K. model, transformative changes are on the way. Not only have the British consolidated federal websites down to just two domains, the U.K. Government Digital Service recently opened the APIs, the "bedrock on which Gov.uk is built," to the public. 

APIs can be called up to quickly spin out websites and mobile applications--just ask the Federal Communications Commission, where VanRoekel worked prior to taking the OMB post.  

When FCC completed its website redesign it touted the back-end grunt work more than the actual look and feel of the final website. The agency said it “liquefied” its web presence and took on the challenge “API first.” With APIs at the core, FCC was able to spin off a mobile application less than 6 days after it rebooted its website.

Perhaps it’s ill-fated to make predictions on a governmentwide strategy that up to this point has been extremely nebulous. But if VanRoekel’s FCC pedigree and attraction to the U.K. web reform model are any indication, APIs will have a key role in his mobility strategy.

VanRoekel has said a lot about mobility, websites and liberated data. That’s not to say the federal mobility strategy won’t also cover the nuts and bolts of procurement, mobile device management or FIPS 140-2 compliant devices. But getting agencies to think of their public-facing data API first, especially in resource-constrained CIO shops, could be far more disruptive than compliance check lists and smartphone solicitations. - Molly 

UPDATE April 5, 4:20 pm: VanRoekel finally said "API" and confirmed via Twitter that APIs will be the "secret sauce" of the federal mobility strategy.