Open Source

Industry warns lawmakers to stay neutral on technology

U.S. Capitol at Night

Two lawmakers plan to introduce an IT procurement reform bill in 2013.

Two members of Congress, reaching across the partisan divide, are pushing the government to think broadly -- governmentwide -- about open-source software, provoking warnings from industry groups that they are ignoring the core principle of technology neutrality.

Departmental officials have always thought department-wide, when they instead should think much more broadly to save money and resources, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) agreed at the NextGov Prime event in Washington, DC. The 24 departments often buy the same software under individual deals. But Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, “We can share what we’re doing in a collaborative way so that software is not redundantly contracted out.”

Open source software is developed and updated by communities of users rather than profit-driven companies, and distributed under lightly-controlled licensing rules.

For several months, Issa has circulated a draft bill on IT commodity purchasing reforms called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. The final provision of the bill would open the door wider for open source software on a governmentwide basis. It would promote the use of open source software, even clarifying that agencies should include open source software in its preferences when buying commercial IT. Connolly is also backing the bill and has said he will co-sponsor it when Issa introduces it next year.

The benefits of open source would become especially dramatic if the government sees itself as one organization rather than a coalition of departments, agencies and bureaus, Issa said. “Once you define us as [one organization], what we’re really saying is that we can share,” he said.

In addition, Connolly said the open source software can save resources in the era of shrinking resources. “What the draft bill is ultimately getting at is saving taxpayers money and making government more efficient,” he said. “We have 24 different price structures for the same item,” creating unnecessary layers of duplication, he said.

However, four IT industry groups say the provision “strays from the core principle that statutes should be technology neutral,” according to a letter about the draft bill they sent to Issa Nov. 30.

“Under no circumstances do we believe the government should promote or mandate consideration of commercial IT products or services based specifically upon the licensing, contracting, or business model used to develop them,” the groups wrote.

The groups include TechAmerica, BSA | The Software Alliance, the Coalition for Government Procurement, and the Information Technology Industry Council.

Katherine McGuire, vice president of government relations at the Software Alliance, said the bill would put open source software above other types of software, including proprietary and also mixed software.

Regulations require agencies to make merit-based IT purchasing decisions. They must be based on performance and value, as well as “free of preconceived preferences based on how technology is developed, licensed, or distributed,” according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The groups warned of misconceptions among procurement officials about the legality of using certain types of software.

The government still needs to define open source software, Issa said. But he added that he intends for his bill to keep the government neutral in IT choices.

Overall though, Issa said, “We believe we can be collaborative to the benefit of the private sector and the public sector, as we were with the Internet—not develop for government, but ultimately today being a government/private-sector entity.”

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 5, 2012

Open-source technologies are not always as good as commercial alternatives, and commercial alternatives, even expensive ones, are not always better than open-source technologies. I think it would be perfectly fair to provide a legal preference to open-source technologies when the benefits of price savings and functionality outweigh the benefits of commercial alternatives, and this goes the other way around as well. In other words, I want the government to act like it actually has intelligent people running it for once and mandate that good decisions be based on intelligent considerationg of the benefits of alternatives, so long as such consideration doesn't wind up costing us more than it would have cost just to go commercial. In short: use open source unless it can't suggiciently meet your needs. In most cases, it can and will do a better job than commercial alternatives.

Wed, Dec 5, 2012

There will always be some ambiguity due to the uniqueness and differences in the underlying development processes. The important issue is what the goals are and then choose the appropriate method. There are decidedly different cost parameters for each and every case. For example, if there is the need to have a very flexible and adaptable software system that will require continual modification and adaptability, than open source might be best, (e.g. need access to the guts)—(this requires a certain level of in-house expertise in requirements definition , software development, and system integration). On the other hand, for software applications that can meet a large general set of objectives and require little if no change or modification, both initially and over time, a conventionally developed commercial solution is probably more cost effective. There is, as always, some grey in the middle, which tends to make most choose inappropriately. It’s a matter of the ethos inherent in the cathedral and bazaar methodologies. It might just come down to users and uses cases. There is a lot of mutual exclusivity here, (and the inherent self-interest that comes with the territory). The real problem in most large organizations it’s more about who is doing the decision making and why they come to certain conclusions. The only thing that might fix this is a firing squad. ;) “Orthodoxy means not thinking--not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” ~ George Orwell, 1984

Wed, Dec 5, 2012 Olde Sarge DC

Endorsing consideratin of all alternatives, to include open-source software, is technology neutral. The licensing model has nothing to do with technology. It is simply a business model. Agencies should be encouraged to pursue any smart way they can to reduce costs and better use the shrinking resources available to them to meet their tchnology needs. Open-source is a viable alternative that has come into its own during these austere times.

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