How does something as fringe, quasi anarchic and ‘possibly communist’ as open source fit in with government? Not very comfortably, according to OSCON panelists with experience in government IT. While open source could be ideal for procurement – it’s often free – many government entities, slow to change, are loathe switch from a known entity to an unknown. And price-point is just one of the problems. Silona Bonewald of the League of Technical Voters says that a difficulty in the government’s adoption of open source software is that since it is often free, there’s the danger that the tech can be seen as gift, which leads to concerns of impropriety.
“If we replace software with the word money, there would be a lot of problems,” Bonewald says, noting that if a developer targets a government organization too specifically while building an app they can be seen as making a financial contribution to that agency.
Greg Lund-Chaix of Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab says that many in government IT use open source, oftentimes in stealth projects, as they can sometimes be fired for using it. Process often trumps outcome, so government IT workers face difficulties in doing something that hasn’t already been done before.
Government doesn’t take risks, so they stick with known vendors: If you don’t use them, you can’t blame the vendors when something goes wrong. That’s something that open source developers need to learn quickly when working in government, Bonewald says: accountability and corporate self-preservation.
If there is so much resistance to it, what are the advantages of open source? Price, obviously, and the ability to avoid the agonizingly slow procurement proceedings before implementation.
“With free, you don’t need procurement,” Lund-Chaix says.
According to Lund-Chaix, there are cost offsets even beyond the initial software acquisition. There is no need to hire outside consultants, and you can scale the code to your organization and infrastructure. Open source software can also be easily swapped out if it does not meet an organization’s needs.
As Bonewald notes, the operating philosophy in government, as in any large bureaucracy, is fundamentally opposed to open source’s own. Open source developers working with government entities need to learn legal and professional accountability practices less common in the open source community than in bureaucracy.
In fact, a lot of open source people don’t last long in government IT, says Lund-Chaix.
Open source can be very advantageous, especially for under-funded agencies. Adoption would be a notable shift for many agencies, but once open source becomes a known part of the process, government IT spending could be drastically reduced.