The group called Open Source for America, which aims to increase the role of open source in government, handed out its "first annual" awards this week at a conference in Portland and I'm afraid they did not have the sweet smell of success.
The winners were worthy. The team behind the new whitehouse.gov, written in Drupal. The Trust the Vote Project. Most especially Brian Behlendorf, who is driving NHIN Direct, which over the next few years will eliminate the hassle of filling out the same forms each time you see a new doctor.
But when you're giving an award to your own webmaster, and the site hasn't been updated to reflect the awards yet, then you're stretching.
It reminded me of how, 10 years ago, I watched the online advertising awards in San Francisco and saw a bunch of statuettes go to a silly CNN banner. To this day no one else in the room knows why I was cackling all night. They thought I was on something. No, when you can't cry you have to laugh.
Some of my concern lay in the choice of meeting site. Portland is so far from Washington you can nearly see Sarah Palin's house from there. I have to guess there was hope of honoring some state and local government efforts, thus the idea was to go far away from the Beltway.
The bigger problem lies in the nature of government procurement.
As I noted while in France for OWF, even honest government demands a ton of work free before you see a dime. Those costs get built into the contract, and those resources (who aren't doing anything but sophisticated selling) become high-value employees.
That's why government contractors like Harris, which created NHIN Connect, wind up worthless in the private sector. The solution is purpose-built for bureaucrats' trips, and their business process doesn't work when the buyer really does care about cost, and won't pay extra to pad in a "request for information," a "request for proposal," and a detailed bid.
I am not talking here of corruption. Corruption, when it exists, is yet-another charge that must be paid for out of the contract, and always is. Whether we're talking about drinks, dinner, a job for the retiring bureaucrat or outright bribes, it's not a change to the process, just a charge to an existing department.
Well, most open source companies don't have marketing departments. Looking at the complete list of OSFA founders, I don't know if I've even gotten a t-shirt or a pen out of any one of them, and I've been on this beat five years. I consider that a good thing -- you don't really make money in open source handing out tschotskes to reporters.
The problem is that, in the end, the question of open source vs. proprietary software in government is a make-or-buy decision. Every enterprise manager knows that to make open source work you need a commitment of human resources that your contractor provides in the proprietary world.
So what seems to be happening is that these contractors, like HP's EDS unit or Dell's Perot Systems unit, not to mention the hundreds of government-contracting specialists surrounding Washington D.C. in a wreath of smiles, are simply adding open source code to their portfolios and pocketing the savings.
That's not the change we seek. For open source to start saving government money, government needs to hire more programmers, and give those programmers authority over important functions that until now have been contracted out. Grow government directly, in other words, rather than indirectly the Halliburton way.
And that's far more political than I suspect OSFA wants to be.