Delivering a Better Government Faster Through Open Source

April 7, 2009

by Government Team

2009 has already been a big year for open source solutions in government. Enthused by President Obama’s call for a transparent, participatory and collaborative government, pundits and government and technology leaders are calling for an open source government. The Do It Yourself (DIY) Federal IT Bailout Report, issued by MeriTalk, an online community addressing IT and public policy issues, identified billions of dollars in potential Federal IT savings for government agencies from open source, virtualization and cloud computing. The Department of Defense (DoD) launched Forge.mil as a site where developers can work on open source software projects specifically for the DoD. Both Carahsoft Technology Corp., the Master Government Partner for Red Hat, and DLT Solutions, a Red Hat Ready Government Partner that serves as a government and educational reseller for Red Hat, were awarded Blanket Purchase Agreements (BPAs) through the DoD’s Enterprise Software Initiative (DoD-ESI) to provide open source solutions – including Red Hat and JBoss – to the DoD community. And most recently, the Open Source Software Institute (OSSI) and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) announced that they would be collaborating on a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to publicly distribute more than 50 federal administration agreements under an open source license.

So why is the government’s adoption of open source solutions garnering so much attention these days?As Paul Smith, vice president of Red Hat’s government sales operations, outlines below (in an article originally contributed to MeriTalk), open source simply enables government officials to deliver a better government faster.

Delivering a Better Government Faster Through Open Source

By Paul Smith, Vice President of Government Sales Operations, Red Hat

Much has been said in recent weeks about the need for change transparency and accountability at all levels of government. During his first full day in office, President Barack Obama set forth his expectations regarding government transparency in two important memorandums fueling commentary that President Obama is the first open source president.

In the first, a memorandum addressed to the heads of executive departments and agencies on Transparency and Open Government, President Obama declares, “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” He states clearly that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative, and vows to coordinate the development of an Open Government Directive to be issued by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum.

In his second memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, President Obama succinctly notes that, “A democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency.” Only open source meets the expectation of transparency and accountability President Obama has set forth. While most closely associated with software development where the source code is freely shared, open source transcends technology. Successful examples of collaboration and openness are not difficult to come by across disciplines.

Take the Human Genome Project and Wikipedia as two examples. The Human Genome Project was an international 13-year research effort coordinated by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the sequence of the human genome and identify the location of the genes that it contains. The information generated by the Human Genome Project has allowed researchers to begin to understand the human blueprint and remains as the source book for biomedical science in the 21st century. As researchers learn more about the functions of genes and proteins this knowledge will be of immense benefit to the fields of medicine and biotechnology and will be used to understand and treat many of the more than 4,000 genetic diseases that afflict mankind.

James Kent, the then graduate student responsible for writing the human genome assembly program, completed the 10,000-line program in less than a month because of his concern that the genome would be locked up by commercial patents if an assembled sequence was not made publicly available for all scientists to work on. Quite simply, Kent’s work to ensure that the Human Genome Project remained open has enabled better science faster.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia built by an active community of participants, takes an open source approach to information. Open source information repositories such as Wikipedia have forever changed the way knowledge is captured and the collaborative nature of the wiki platform has resulted in more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages. Through an open source model, Wikipedia provides better information faster. As pointed out by Douglas Raymond, a former U.S. Army captain, former member of the 66th Military Intelligence Group, and current member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Paula Broadwell, a PhD student in counterterrorism policy studies at Harvard University and the deputy director of the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, the U.S. intelligence community would be wise to further adopt a Wikipedia-like approach to collaborative information sharing. U.S. intelligence agencies must adopt this collaborative spirit and become more adept at incorporating the increasingly valuable analysis produced in the public domain with their internal efforts.

In other areas of government this type of collaboration is already underway. Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) was originally released under the General Public License (GPL) in late 2000 by the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Office of Information Assurance. Since then it has been developed by the open source community in collaboration with the NSA. Here open source is being used to create better security policies and enhancements faster.

As we work to fund initiatives, including the Economic Stimulus Plan, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the continued global war against terrorism, government executives must find other areas where we can become more efficient while ensuring they meet their missions. Open source is stable, trustworthy, and safe and is being used across government agencies to create efficiencies and avoid vendor lock-in. As government agencies strive for accountability and to comply with OMB’s forthcoming Open Government Directive, only open source solutions meet President Obama’s requirements for a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government.

At the end of the day adopting open source – both through our approach to government and technology – will enable us to deliver better government faster.

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