Open Source in Government… will it really happen?

One of the areas where open standards and open source are a no-brainer for me is in the realm of government.  Here are a couple of stories highlighting government decisions to consider open source:  UK Government upgrades Open Source policy and San Francisco Institutes Open Source Software Policy.

On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing.  If the requirement says that contractors have to look into open-source solutions then there will be a flood of open-source being used, right?  Not necessarily.  These don’t seem to require use of open source, simply consideration.  I’m pretty certain that a company who has a favorite proprietary decision will still be able to come back with a statement that they considered the open-source option, but found it lacking in certain key areas, so they still recommend the proprietary solution.  Unfortunately I think that in many cases government is at the mercy of its service providers.  There are technical people in government… even passionately technical who want to see elegant solutions.  However, because of the nature of government these people are not necessarily on the front lines of these decisions.  I remember my own time in state government when I was the only one arguing.  That got pretty lonely pretty quickly.

So why does it matter?  Well, for one thing these solutions are spending tax dollars which could be used for other things.  If the applications and data are properly protected with alternative data centers and fail-over then you have at least a pair of licenses for everything used.  If the tech budget is tight, then some levels of protection may be skipped because the money just isn’t there.  The more software in the mix that can be freely distributed the more money that is available for other technical requirements.

The other issue is the freedom of the information.  Government information should not be held hostage by a proprietary data system.  It is appropriate that this information be held securely and that privacy be protected, but it should be recorded in a way that can change with growing technology.  The more exotic the means of recording data the more costly it is to move that information to any other system.  On the other hand, if the means of recording data are open, these migrations are simplified.  I do wonder how much of government IT is spent nursing archaic systems that have been deemed to expensive to upgrade.

Any changes here are going to have to be a requirement of the people.  As citizens we are going to have to demand that open source and open standards be a part of solutions for government.  Those of us who are technical are going to need to keep an eye on what is done and blow the whistle when open solutions are not being used where they should.  I do have some hope.  Lately I’ve found more government services that I can access on-line and I generally have no problem making them work in my Gnu/Linux/Firefox environment.  This has been improving.  Maybe openness in government technology is for real.

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