Wyne: Keeping a level playing field

Software mandates harm citizens, IT-centric government

Governments serve their constituents in many ways. Increasingly, government services are delivered through information technology because IT and vigorous marketplace competition create better federal, state and local services. Not surprisingly, some officials have sought to improve this situation.

During the past three years, legislative and administrative proposals have arisen in California, Oregon, Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York City, and within federal agencies. They seek to supplant a competitive market with government mandates. Although only the Massachusetts proposal has taken hold, these proposals generally have urged governments to procure open-source software instead of buying commercially available software.

How software is developed matters little in our view. If open-source software better suits a project's requirements, officials should choose open source. But merit should be the deciding factor.

Mandated preferences, which limit software options, should not replace merit-based choices. The abundance of such options is the reason for IT-centric government's success.

Few would disagree that government should find the best, most cost-effective solutions. Limited taxpayer dollars are at stake. Procurement officials should keep their IT options open and remain agnostic about their choice of software for services.

But how can a procurement official remain agnostic?

  • Permit wide-open choice. Merit stands a better chance of winning when all options can compete, be seen and be judged. Choices should not be limited at the outset.
  • Choose software based on economic, not societal considerations. Select software assets that offer the highest value during their life cycles. Consider indirect costs such as labor, asset downtime, support and peer mentoring.
  • Conduct transparent procurements. Require companies to be upfront about their functionality, performance and cost benchmarks so that vendors can compete equally. Force vendors to prove their claims against objective criteria.
  • Let international trade norms guide procurements. Such norms take the nationality of the solution provider and other discriminatory criteria out of the equation and encourage merit-based choices.
  • Respect intellectual property rights. Promoting IP rights encourages innovation, competition and technology transfer. If software procurements require the underlying IP to become government property, for example, fewer parties will bid. And having fewer bidders limits what agencies can cost-effectively acquire.

Choosing software for citizens to use is difficult because so many good choices are available. But choices cannot be mandated through preferences or limiting choices. Officials can be assured of getting the most out of their software acquisitions if they follow the five rules above.

Wyne is executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, a coalition of software companies and IT associations whose members advocate neutral procurements of government software. It is run by the Computing Technology Industry Association.

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