In December 2009, President Obama issued the Open Government Directive to the head of every federal department and agency instructing them to take specific actions to open their operations to the public. The open source principles of transparency, participation and collaboration were at the center of the directive. In April 2010, the agencies submitted their Open Government Plans, outlining the steps they planned to take to achieve the directive’s goals.
Open Source for America commends the Administration for the steps it has taken, in the initial period following adoption of the policy, to enable and invite public scrutiny of the U.S. federal government. Open technologies are the key to achieving the open, transparent, efficient, and collaborative government that U.S. citizens desire.
BENEFITS OF OPEN TECHNOLOGIES
The recent 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management released by the Federal CIO’s office notes that, “the Federal Government too often relies on large, custom, proprietary systems,” and that “IT will open government, providing deep visibility into all operations.” The plan, while not specifically addressing proprietary vs. open technologies demonstrates the Federal government’s understanding of the ways that technology can help the government achieve broad goals, not just of efficiency, but of providing transparency and collaboration for better serving U.S. citizens.
The use of open formats, open source software, and open standards enables the government to make data freely available to the public for a variety of purposes, as well as to create programs that are more efficient and consumer-driven. Many state and local governments have implemented open technologies to better serve their citizens. For example, in September 2009, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) opened its transit data, including bus and train schedules, for software developers. Within two months, six trip planning applications had been built at no cost to the MBTA by citizen developers. The MBTA’s experience is just one example of how opening government data to the public can spur innovation, create jobs for those who use the data to develop new applications, and save taxpayer money.
Using open technologies creates cost efficiencies, more responsive and innovative software, and can help governments, enterprises and individual users avoid being dependent on a single vendor for software solutions. A 2009 Meritalk study indicated the U.S. federal government could save $3.7 billion by switching to open source solutions. Further, open source code is publicly available for review, meaning that flaws are more easily discovered and fixed. Open technologies are also a key ingredient to achieving the administration’s drive to align the Federal budget and acquisition process with the technology cycle, strengthen program management, increase engagement with the IT community, and adopt light technologies and shared solutions. (See Driving IT Reform: An Update, November
19, 2010). In many respects, the success of this reform effort will be more likely with continued emphasis and utilization of open technologies. In light of the benefits that open technologies can bring to governments, and ultimately its citizens, Open Source for America (OSFA) conducted a review of fifteen (15) Cabinet-level departments and agencies to determine their use of open source technologies, open formats, and technology tools for citizen engagement. The results are summarized in this Federal Open Technology Report
The survey included questions regarding public budgets, use of social media, and open source technologies practices. OSFA invited participation and review by agency representatives from the Administration’s newly formed Open Government Working Group. Report card results combine direct agency input as well as independent research conducted by OSFA.
All line-items required substantiation through publicly available government websites. This independent research was intentionally limited to public agency websites, recognizing that public access and transparency are inseparable in the government context. Answers to the questions determined the score of each agency, with the use of open source technologies and open formats weighing most heavily. This included items such as publishing public documents in open file formats, participating in open source software creation and providing guidance on procurement policies surrounding open technologies.
This study was conducted three months after the agencies submitted their Open Government Plans and is intended to demonstrate baseline data in the beginning of a long journey towards openness and transparency in the federal government. While some of the agencies scored very well, most agencies fell below the 50 percent. Given that this is the first year that the agencies are operating under the Directive and the Open Government Plans, Open Source for America feels the results demonstrate a positive beginning, but with some room for improvement.
The Department of Defense (DOD) achieved the highest score. The DOD has issued procurement policies for open technologies as well as guidance facilitating participation by government employees in open source projects. The Department is demonstrably ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing the benefits and using open technologies. OSFA would encourage other agencies to use DOD policies and practices as a model for implementation within their own departments. Other findings, according to the survey:
• The highest scorers (Defense and Energy) have published agency-created software code as open source and provide clear guidance identifying open source as a permitted procurement option.
• All agencies publish at least some forms in open file format standards and accept files from the public in multiple document formats.
• Agencies generally scored well on transparency questions, by publishing budgets in search-able formats and Freedom of Information (FOIA)information on their websites.
As previously discussed, Open Source for America recognizes that this is the first year under which agencies are operating under their Open Government Plans. As such, the results show solid commitment to transparency and public feedback, as well as recognition and growing use of open technologies within the federal government. Based on this initial benchmark, it will be essential for agencies to evaluate and incorporate open technologies into their IT plans. For most agencies, there is certainly room for improvement in the coming year. OSFA encourages agencies to take the following actions to achieving the Administration’s goals of openness, transparency, and collaboration within the federal government:
1. Adopt policies and guidance allowing for procurement of open source software and recognizing it as ‘commercial’ software
2. Adopt policies that favor open standards in technology procurement and development
3. Adopt policies that allow government employees as well as citizen volunteers to collaborate on open source projects
4. Release all public data in open, search-able formats on the agency’s website Open Source for America hopes government agencies will use the Federal Open Technology Report Card and its results to continue working toward the exchange of open information and the use of open source technologies and open formats within their department.
ABOUT OPEN SOURCE FOR AMERICA
Open Source for America (OSFA) is an organization of technology industry leaders, non-government associations and academic and research institutions dedicated to advocating the use of open source software in the U.S. federal government. Participation in Open Source for America is open to any individual or entity signing the campaign’s mission pledge at: www.opensourceforamerica.org.
This study represents OSFA’s first effort to evaluate this historical policy initiative. Comments, suggestions, and input regarding this and future research projects are always welcome and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.