Government lags the pace of open source

Government lags the pace of open source

Summary: It's superficial to call open source a "make or buy" decision. When you adopt open source you become part of your project's community. Getting the most out of it means contributing to it. Failure to contribute is why many enterprises don't get maximum value from their open source investments.

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When I wrote my book about Moore's Law early this decade I knew there were many areas where Moore's Law did not apply.

Software for one. Training for another. (Picture from Yes-Minister.com.)

Government is a third.

In the U.S. Constitution this is a feature and not a bug. The three branches of government, the Senate with six-year terms and equal representation for both Wyoming and California, these are meant to cool tempers and slow the pace of change.

For technologists this is frustrating. We know when something works. We want to get to implementing it.

On the surface government is suddenly adapting well to the pace of change. Republicans are Twittering, the Administration is running Drupal, the President has a Blackberry (or something like it).

But these changes are superficial. Most are marketing changes.

Underneath lie many proprietary assumptions. The Obama Administration is not seeking leadership from the open source movement. But the best example of why government lags open source can be seen over in Britain.

It's in a fascinating blog post from Richard Steel, who heads that nation's Society for Information Technology Management. Our UK bureau noted how he backed away from some overt criticisms of open source, but the blog post itself reveals much more.

It starts with a description of Steel's day. Meetings, paperwork, drinks at the club. Guest speakers. It reads like an episode from the old Yes, Minister series, with Mr. Steel in the Sir Humphrey role.

When he finally gets to open source his day is nearly done. I can almost see him flicking crumbs off his shirtfront as he lays down his pronouncements. I already noted the climb-down over open source lagging proprietary software, but there's more, like this gem:

I don’t like the term “Open Source”. It’s misleading; what many people mean is “anything but Microsoft”; few businesses actually use open source directly – they buy software derived from open source that has been commercially packaged and sold with support, which, in practice, is little different to licensed software. 

On, really? Mr. Steel is thinking like an enterprise customer, comparing apples and oranges on a grocer's shelf. The differences between open source and proprietary software go much deeper.

It's superficial to call open source a "make or buy" decision. When you adopt open source you become part of your project's community. Getting the most out of it means contributing to it. Failure to contribute is why many enterprises don't get maximum value from their open source investments.

These are the hard-won lessons of open source experience, but until you engage you can't understand them. It's not a question of technology, but one of changing how you do business.

In this, government remains resistant. Open source threatens its process, and until that process is shaken, not just stirred, it will remain outside.

Topics: Open Source, Government, Government US

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5 comments
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  • Good point.

    Our Government's rate of change should not be linked to the trendy or fashionable. I would think the consideration of Open Source has much to do with the permeation of Moore's Law into every facet of our lives.
    kozmcrae
    • It does

      But open source is more than a Moore's Law
      phenomenon. It transforms the way we do
      business.

      The present Administration has, on the surface,
      embraced this change. It talks the talk. But it
      does not yet always walk the walk. It lags
      behind.
      DanaBlankenhorn
  • Government is always slow

    With so many taxpayers they should be slow and not put all their eggs into one basket.

    Even if Government did fully adopt open source I don't think they would contribute much (outside of already tech-saavy departments who already contribute). And what about the branches who process secret information? They can't start giving back to the community without who knows how many reviews and regulations, even if they wanted to.
    Comnenus
  • RE: Government lags the pace of open source

    Not wanting to point people away from your website, but the UK's Inquirer magazine has been tracking the activities of Richard Steel for sometime. Let's say his activities are less than transparent.

    See http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/441/1035441/newham-microsoft-prepare-mou
    dogStar100
  • RE: Government lags the pace of open source

    When you adopt open source you become part of your projects community. Getting the most out of it means contributing to it.<a href="http://ipadbagblog.com/"><font color="white"> k</font></a>
    zakkiromi