I was genuinely surprised to learn a while back that some Federal government agencies actually share with the public some software code the agency develops, making it available to the private sector. “That means,” I asked, “that the private sector could write and sell programs that are built on our code?” I’d stumbled upon a real conspiracy of fraud, waste, and abuse. The former White House Tech Advisor and, now, Chief Technology Officer with whom I was discussing the prospect looked at me like I was some sort of idiot.
It’s open source software (OSS) code. It’s valuable information. And what’s obvious to most techies is that sharing the code is one of the smartest things we can do. It encourages the private sector—and even those across agencies in the Federal government—to build upon the source codes, to develop better and better software that’s interoperable and, yes, if it’s good enough and innovative enough, perhaps sell the new, powerful applications to the government. It’s about the inherent power of collaboration and partnership.
SHARING OSS CODE
Earlier this month, Tony Scott, Chief Information Officer of the United States, and Anne Rung, the White House Chief of Procurement, released the government’s Federal Source Code Policy. It’s all about sharing source code across government agencies and beyond. Apparently, because of some sense of proprietorship or a culture of keeping important, powerful things secret and closely guarded, the government agencies haven’t been sharing much code, even inside the government. Scott and Rung explain, “Even when agencies are in a position to make their source code available on a Government-wide basis, they do not make such code available to other agencies in a consistent manner.”
Three years ago, the White House released its second action plan under the Open Government Partnership moniker, an effort to take deliberate steps to make government more transparent. Two years ago, the White House released a series of initiatives to achieve the open-government objectives. One objective is to markedly change the government-private-business interaction. And one of those initiatives promised an open-source software policy that “will support improved access to custom software code developed for the Federal government.” The Scott-Rung memorandum of August 8 answers that requirement: “Achieving Efficiency, Transparency, and Innovation through Reusable and Open Source Software.”
DAMS AREN’T BREAKING
All of that sounds pretty good, and some private-sector tech CIOs’ mouths may be watering, but there are limits to this big breakthrough that echo old-time government bureaucracy that impedes the potential speed of genuine progress.
For instance, the policy isn’t retroactive. If there’s some particularly valuable code that the government has already written, well, “making such code available for Government-wide reuse or as OSS, to the extent practicable, is strongly encouraged.” Additionally, the policy only applies to 20 percent of agency code, and the agency decides which code to transition to OSS code. And, then, there are concerns that making government code so public risks cybersecurity. Nextgov’s Mohana Ravindranath notes, “Commenters originally attributed to the Homeland Security Department likened open source code to ‘Mafia having a copy of all FBI system code’ or a ‘terrorist with access to air traffic control software.’ They also suggested removing the pilot’s 20 percent requirement for shared code.”
Without a doubt, making more government code open source is a step in the right direction. However, we’ll have to see how fast things move with the perhaps very necessary bureaucratic friction.