I haven’t written much about my experience last summer as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). I have lots of thoughts about experience at the VA, as well as participating in the PIF program, and I choose to trickle these thoughts out, as I continue to make sense of them, and bring them into alignment with my overall mission as the API Evangelist.
One of the jobs I was tasked with at the VA as a PIF, was taking inventory of the web services within the agency. When asking folks where these web services were, I was directed to various IT Leads on different groups, each giving one or two more locations I could look for word, excel, or other PDFs talking about web services used in projects and known systems. Most of the time these were redundant lists, pointing me to the same 5 web services, and omitting 20-30 that were actually in use for a project.
At one point I was given the contact information for a lady who had been working for two years on a centralized web registry project, that would be the holy grail of web service discovery at the VA. This was it! It was what I was looking for, until I sat in on the weekly call where this project got a 10 minute update, demonstrating that the registry was still about defining the how and what of the registry, and never has actually moved to cataloging actual web services in the wild at the VA. ;-(
Then one day I was introduced to a gentlemen, that was in a back office, in an unmarked cubicle, who seemed to know where most of the web services were, the one difference with this person was that they were a contractor, and not an employee. One thing you hear about, but do not experience fully until you work in government is the line between government employee and contractor—in meetings, and conversations you know who is who (it is pretty clar), but when it comes to finding APIs, I’m sorry the contractors know where everything is at. This contractor had some pretty interesting lists of what web services were in operation, where they were, and which groups at VA owned them, including up to date contact info. These contractors also had their finger on the pulse of any project that was potentially moving the web services converations forward, including the global registry.
Overall I was surprised at how IT groups knew of their own web services, could care less about the web services of other groups, but contractors new where all the web service were across the groups. I was closing in on 500 web services on my list before I left during the shutdown, and I wonder how many else I would have found if I kept up the good fight. This mission had nothing do with API, except that web services are often compared to APis, I was purely taking inventory of what was already in place, a process that went far beyond just technical inventory, and shed light on some serious business and political flaws within operations at the VA.
This is a pretty fundamental flaw in how large government agencies operate, that are in conflict with the solutions API can bring to the table. I don’t give a shit how well designed your API is, in this environment you will fail. Period. I do not think I will ever fully understand what I saw at the VA, while a PIF in Washington DC, but I feel like I’m finally reaching a point where I can at least talk about things publicly, put my thoughts out there, and begin my experiences as a PIF at the VA into my overall API Evangelist message.