Having followed this issue for several years now, I have something important to say about it.
It's a make-or-buy decision.
The choice is not always a simple one.
Making stuff means taking responsibility for it. It means hiring people both to make it and maintain it. It means committing to spending money both today and tomorrow. It's a policy that's difficult to turn back from.
For many decades the U.S. government was a maker. Even when contracts were handed out for big projects, the government remained the general contractor. Over time it became responsible for hundreds of thousands of mid-level employees, paid on a GSA schedule, who were loyal to the idea of government doing things.
If it sounds like make-or-buy is a political choice, it is.
The Bush Administration was a buyer. I'm not just talking here about Halliburton and Blackwater. But throughout the government, and throughout the Administration, the attitude was it was better to buy what was needed than to take the responsibility of making it.
There were, the Bush Administration felt, sound reasons for this. Private contractors owed loyalty to their employer, not the government. Contractors could control employees in ways the government could not. The hope was that profit motive and flexibility would both save money and deliver good service.
This was carried into the IT sphere. I did several stories at ZDNet Healthcare about efforts by private contractors to destroy the VA's open source VistA system -- starving it of funds, driving away the best employees, centralizing contributions, and eventually replacing it through contracts.
My sources were former government employees. The ex-VA employees stayed in touch with former colleagues and got the story out. This was not a big story, but it held a lesson, namely the risk inherent in having government employees building vital infrastructure.
The Obama Administration has reversed this policy. Its appointees believe strongly in the value of open source, not only at the VA but elsewhere. The National Health Information Network, built by Harris Corp. under contract, is now lauded mainly for its use of open source software components. It's called the Health Internet.
As Brian Klepper and David Kibbe wrote when this re-branding was announced, this becomes an issue of control. In this case, who will control health data interchange. In the larger context, who will control the systems which result from using open source.
Making things creates constituencies, within government, both on behalf of a project and on behalf of continued government funding. Some may argue this risk exceeds the value of using open source.
I disagree. I say we have run the experiment. We have tried making, and we have tried buying. I say making makes more sense in the long run, and that a government which only sees things in terms of the short time horizons of its political term is short-sighted indeed.
Oh, one more thing, Doug. Leave the facial hair to the experts. I think you're handsome enough.