The truth about government and open source

The new Conservative government in the U.K. is teasing the idea of switching to open source, but for entirely the wrong reason.

The new Conservative government in the U.K. is teasing the idea of switching to open source, but for entirely the wrong reason.

(Shown is Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, from his parliamentary Web site.)

The claim, supposedly from two government employees, is that the move will save money. In some ways that's right. But experience teaches a different lesson.

Open source does save a lot of money on the front-end. If you're not paying license fees, you can say you're saving money.

But in an enterprise environment that's only half the story. You need to learn how to get value from open source. Developing with open source means paying developers. And open source requires a different attitude toward your people -- all your people -- if you're to gain the most value from it.

I love open source, but a wholesale, immediate switch for an enterprise will always be a fiasco. You're going to dump people who have knowledge, just because that knowledge involves proprietary products. And you're going to have to gear up to hire people who have different types of knowledge.

More important, an organization using open source can't be driven from the top down. The most successful open source implementations are bottom-up affairs. You have to empower people to get into the guts of your organization and support them, even when they make mistakes.

In other words, some of what you save on the front end you lose on the back end. And you have to start trusting your people. Open source won't work if your people are mushrooms -- if you want to leave them in the dark and shovel manure on them.

Another important point is your relationship to the community, which in this case is the whole country. You're taking software from a commons. You need to donate back. You need to accept the contributions and ideas of complete outsiders, maybe even foreigners, maybe even Americans.

And you have to participate.

These are lessons American enterprises are still learning. Many large American companies that have supported open source projects still aren't getting full value, because they won't allow contributions to the commons from employees and they won't allow free communications with the community.

There's a lot of change to get your head around, and you have to believe in it.

My advice, based on what I've learned on this beat, is it's best to go slowly. Evolve toward open source. Don't impose it. And accept the values of open source if you want to get full value from it.

If you can do that you can make lasting change in any organization, even a government.