VA approaches open source day of reckoning

VA approaches open source day of reckoning

Summary: The process illustrates why proprietary contractors have the upper hand in government procurement. They can put hire experts to write sparkling essays showing exactly why up is down and wrong is right. Open source has no equivalent of the million dollar washer.

TOPICS: Open Source

Long before open source entered the lexicon, the Veterans Administration (VA) was known to techies for VistA, an electronic medical record (EMR) program written in MUMPS that was developed in an open way and published as a public record, freely available.

Now, with MUMPS experts looking increasingly like an opera audience (aging out), the VA is looking to replace VistA. They like the idea of open source, but they have serious questions about things like governance and management of the intellectual property.

So, in the way of Washington, they have issued a Request For Information, hoping the industry can answer its questions.

The whole process illustrates why big, proprietary contractors have the upper hand in government procurement. They can put experts onto this RFI, writing sparkling essays (complete with charts) showing exactly why sharing the intellectual property open source creates would be a really bad idea.

Open source vendors can't afford this, because the costs of the effort can't easily be capitalized into a later contract. Open source doesn't create million dollar washers.

Yet the advantages for the VA in the open source process are proven. The VA has been benefiting from that process for a quarter century. VistA itself, which has spawned a small open source industry with no help from the VA, is the proof of that.

It's like you have to educate someone on their own invention.

The RFI reminds me of how I discovered my own daughter was dyslexic, many years ago. She got a learning game, went through the first level, and instead of going to the next level created a new screen name for herself, going through the same level again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Her dyslexia was eventually repaired, through an education process that emphasized hands-on learning, at which she excelled. She would write her spelling words into shaving cream my wife spread on a glass tabletop. She's in college now and doing well.

But the VA has already gone through this hands-on learning process. Why should they need the benefits explained yet-again?

Because that's how government procurement works. The VA spent most of the Bush years pushing VistA to the sidelines, and even signed a contract for a proprietary lab system from Cerner. While the VA's new managers have some open source religion they are still in the position of judges, and need evidence before proceeding.

There are experts who can deliver the lesson, like Fred Trotter. Unfortunately Fred is currently fighting a patent troll (thanks again, Justice Roberts).

Medsphere could deliver the lesson, but they're pretty busy these days filling orders. They do have an interesting white paper out on how they're upgrading MUMPS with Java, but I suspect the VA wants more of a 10,000 foot view.

So consider this a call-out to my friends at the Linux Foundation. These boys need a re-education. If you do it right, you can educate enterprises of all sizes.

Topic: Open Source

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  • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

    No, the VA is just following the FAR. You do know about the FAR, right? An RFI is an absolutely normal part of the process. And if you had bothered to actually read the RFI, you'd notice that the VA is *not* asking for arguments for or against open source. They're asking for best practices on how to implement open source. If some 'big, proprietary contractor' were to submit arguments against open source, it would be rejected as non-compliant. Also, the responses are page-limited to 20 pages (also not untypical, although 10 is more common), so there again no 'big, proprietary contractors' have the advantage. If the OS community can't be bothered to write a 20 page white paper, maybe they deserve to go under. (What do I know about government procurements? Glad you asked. I'm a member of the APMP and have written over 200 proposals for over $10 billion in business. Won more than a few, too. How much time have you spent reading sections C, L, and M?)
    • So? BFD, STS, EIEI O

      You act as if the VA has everything under control. The VA has big trouble when it comes to implementing any small or large scale IT projects. They have been trying to reorganize their IT infrastructure and cope with dismal failures such as their 44 terminated major projects just for 2010. I agree, there is no problem spending the money, just that where are the positive results? Do you think expect us to believe that the procurement process is that simple and straight forward? Please! Vendors paint pretty pictures for government purchasing agents who really don't understand the technology.
      • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

        @BobinAtlanta VA failures are a legacy of the contractor-centric attitude that pervaded the government for many years.
      • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

        @BobinAtlanta How in the world did you get any of that from my post? I thought I was making the point that the VA wasn't opening the bid up to proprietary software, but rather asking for information about best practices for open source. No, wait, I did say exactly that: "They're asking for best practices on how to implement open source."
      • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

        illustrates why proprietary<a href=""><font color="light&amp;height"> about it</font></a> is bank that <a href=""><font color="light&amp;height">website</font></a> attacked from the <a href=""><font color="light&amp;height">site support</font></a> from any soldier <a href=""><font color="light&amp;height">site</font></a> to the light <a href=""><font color="light&amp;height">home page</font></a> is great contractors
    • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

      @Vesicant I don't think I accused the VA of doing something bad. I think the process of having to justify what you were doing for 20 years, and what worked, favors proprietary contractors who can jump through those hoops and add it to the bill later.
      • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

        @DanaBlankenhorn Sorry, wasn't trying to say that. I was trying to say that I thought your reading of the RFI was off target, and that it looked to me like the VA was asking for information about best practices for open source, not trying to justify going proprietary. Me, I know how gov't IT projects can go off the rails -- back in the mid 90s, I wrote a paper about the California DMV project failure. I absolutely think open source should have its opportunity to prove it can do better. Hey, if anyone in open source wants help from a proposal development pro, just ask.
  • Hoping to FINALLY win that previous battle

    Dana, that procurement plan is designed to keep VA from repeating the mistakes they made in the '60's, and it probably will. Having sold over a billion dollars of federal software and implementations and then building and selling an open source software company, I can say that the fulfillment paradigm is completely different.

    With enterprise implementations, it was always, "Freeze the requirements! We'll be back in 2months, 6months, 2 years with what we thought you wanted." And the misses and stupidity were truly monumental. What I have seen of open source development has been adjusting mature code to fit requirements, weekly progress, and both requirements and development are dynamic, kinda like the real world. That's different to buy and manage, will require different customer skills, but since the ship has largely sailed on "shut up and wait" development, perhaps the importance and definition of learning how to be successful should be part of the response.
    • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

      @dickdavies I really hope you're right.
  • So where is the BLOG?

    A community effort through postings to a blog should get the job done nicely. If Dana would volunteer to moderate and condense the consensus to ten or twenty pages when the time comes, that should really nail it down.
    • Don't you mean a wiki?

      @Sagax- Blogs are inefficient, as Howard Dean learned. Wikis are more efficient. If you insist on the blog metaphor, go with a CMS -- it scales.
  • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

    I disagree that open source has a disadvantage when it comes to profiting off of public sector contracts. I work in public sector contracting. A strong open-source integrator is more cost effective than one of the big consulting firms utilizing proprietary solutions. Support contracts are easy to write in an expedited fashion, and are just gravy to any open-source consulting firm because the majority of development (and even, now, some good documentation) costs are shared by the community as a whole.

    Margins can be so much higher than traditional proprietary offerings because the development costs are shared, just as ownership is distributed. No open source-based consulting firm/integrator will be successful without having a significant (i.e., 30% of gross profits) marketing budget, and a strong strategy for growth. But, at the very least, service contracts to support or deploy open source projects can be nearly pure gravy for the well marketed integrators out there.
  • RE: VA approaches open source day of reckoning

    What's good for the VA will be even better for the balance of the U.S. healthcare delivery system. A "reengineered" VistA 2.0 Open Source is the quickest and most efficient path to the establishment of a "standard" for health information technology, adoption. How else is U.S. healthcare to create an inter operable, nationwide, health information database; a single, interchangeable, electronic medical record and/or health record; and for national, even international, health information and insurance exchanges?

    Industry can get creative and find ways to make a buck facilitating that "public good" or leave it to the non-profits to get done...either way, open source VistA 2.0 (reengineered VistA, nor enhanced Mumps or whatever it's called) is coming, whether or not it's the VA who brings it or not.