Red Tape Hinders Open Source Uptake in Government

Open source may be experiencing something of a slow uptake in government offices lately because the traditional “request for proposal” (RFP) process — required and used by governments when spending tax dollars on software and other technology resources — often excludes open source options.

Even worse, governments are typically using software and solutions for which they do not own the copyright, so customization is limited and collaboration is stifled, according to City of Newport News (Va.) Chief Information Officer Andy Stein, who spoke on a panel at this week’s second annual Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON).

“People want to start a new collaboration, but can’t because they don’t own the code,” Stein said.

Representatives from city, state and national government bureaus nationwide converged in Portland, Ore., for the event, seeking ways to leverage both open source software and cooperation among themselves to better serve the public.

The conference, kicked off with a keynote by Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) Chief Executive Officer Stuart Cohen, brought together nearly 250 government IT managers, open source consultants and others interested in how free and open source software (FOSS) can save time and money in government applications.

Fitting Combination

In addition to a focus on the challenges of government open source adoption and procurement, the conference featured a general recognition that open source and government work well together.

“I think it’s a fascinating model of where the world is going,” Cohen said, referring to a government open source alliance among China, Japan and Korea.

However, a number of issues came to light in a GOSCON session focused on how governments go about procuring and approving technology, and the challenge of incorporating new development and deployment models of open source software.

Concerns included the lack of resources on the part of open source software projects and companies that may not be able to seek out government RFPs.

Open Source Special

The panel agreed that while RFPs can often preclude open source options, these government calls for project bids can be tailored to consider open source and other solutions.

“You can craft that process [to include] buying something that makes sense in this open source market,” said State of Oregon CIO Dugan Petty.

While he conceded the conventional government RFP is structured for proprietary vendors, Petty said there was a long history of special procurements in government in which the focus is need, rather than the possible providers of a product or service with which to meet it.

Procurement laws have for a decade accounted for rapidly advancing technologies, and open source fits that bill, Petty added.

Download and Use

Oregon Department of Transportation CIO Ben Berry questioned whether an RFP process would be necessary since open source software is free to download and use.

“When do we actually need to go through the process with open source software?” asked Berry, who reported finding thousands of instances of open source software running within his organization’s IT systems after scanning them.

Petty pointed out that procurement law typically applies to public funding, meaning if there is no cost to the software, there is no issue. However, there was some consensus that staff time spent downloading, running and, most importantly, supporting open source software must be considered.

From a developer’s perspective, RFPs are often written as though a single source is being sought, noted Ken Hill, who works with the Health Registry Network, a multi-state health initiative. Petty’s response: “If an RFP is wired for [only] one solution, that should be challenged.”

What is needed now is a process or model — created by stakeholders including developers and governments — that can be shared by states to go about acquiring new technologies and solutions that are open source.

“To get there, we need to re-think the whole procurement process,” Stein said. “It’s a big problem. It’s also a big opportunity.”

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