Open source software is free and is often developed by collaborations
of volunteer programmers around the world, along with staff at big
companies who find it in their common interest that this software be
Open source software has been an enormous success.
Most of the web services on the Internet are delivered by Apache
software on the Linux platform – both open source projects. Indeed,
there are over 25 million open source projects listed on the open source
directory of GitHub.
Despite the billions of dollars spent by the
public sector for software each year, the public sector’s share of
those open source projects has been much smaller than its share of the
overall economy. This small commitment to open source is not what you’d
expect considering the situation of the public sector compared to the
First, unlike private companies, governments
cannot really consider their software to be proprietary and a key
strategic advantage in competing with others. Taxpayers have already
paid for the software and, like much else in government, it is supposed
to be open and available (unless security or privacy is at stake).
there are many programmers who would help to build and maintain public
sector software out of civic spirit and a recognition that they too
benefit as citizens.
Code For America
has been an outstanding example, but not the only example, of the
willingness of software developers to help even local governments. Ben Balter has been a champion for public sector open source as well. The GovCode
“Code for your country! We believe in a government
of the hackers, for the hackers and by the hackers”.
[That’s hackers in
the good sense of creative, expert programmers.]
source software is often much less expensive than commercial,
proprietary products and just as often better quality. This is
especially true in the public sector where many of the companies
providing products for various special purposes – like jail management or health –
aren’t very big themselves and thus their products are often constrained
or sometimes buggy.
It’s hard to come by the total
number of software developers in governments or total expenditures for
software development – or even packaged software where open source might
substitute. But considering how many government agencies there are, it
is likely that government at all levels has a lot more developers in total than these
Of course, in fits and starts, open source has come to government, with 2012-2013 a recent peak of interest.
The US Defense Department issued guidelines
for use of open source in that agency. And the US Federal government
has, officially, been an advocate for open source software – at least
within itself. It is not easy to determine what percentage of software
the Feds have actually shifted from proprietary to open source.
Also, a few years ago, the Open Source Institute
dedicated itself to
“promote the development and implementation of open
source software solutions within U.S. Federal, state, and local
Alas, currently it seems to be in a quiescent
More recently, Github has created a platform for public sector sharing. But much of what is being shared is data or best practices, not software.
worth noting that, despite the efforts of the former DOD CIO and groups
within the General Services Administration, like 18F, too little of that movement
has been the result of leadership from within the government. Most has
come from outsiders offering to help.
Most significant is this
nuance: even when there is interest, government policies on open source
are focused on using open source software developed elsewhere, like
Linux, and not necessarily contributing to that software or creating new
open source software.
A key missing element in the failure to
make open source development the standard approach in the public sector is lack of
collaboration among governments. This is hard to understand in an era
when public agencies are strapped for cash. Each public agency may have
only a small software budget. However, pooling their financial and human
resources will achieve a scale that could allow for the creation of
good, feature-rich software for all of them.
need not stop at national borders. For example, the requirements for
software to manage the vaccination of a population are very much
consistent in the public health agencies of many countries. Moreover,
several trends should make collaboration easier – the shift to cloud
computing, new forms of communications that can ease discussions among
developers and the decreasing cost of building software compared to
It is now possible for government technologists, with
support from citizens, to truly scale up their open source software
So what are public officials, especially
public sector CIOs, waiting for?
If you have the answer or, better yet,
suggestions on how to make public sector open source more widely
adopted, please let us all know.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved