ExecTech

Picking up the open-gov torch

In September, the White House announced a series of new initiatives as part of its second Open Government National Action Plan. Among them was a commitment to developing and implementing a governmentwide open-source software policy by the end of 2015.

But two of the leaders of that initiative -- Todd Park and Steven VanRoekel -- left the White House toward the end of the summer, raising questions about whether the program will stay on track.

Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Park and former U.S. CIO VanRoekel were in their respective positions for more than two years and played a role in the launch of the Digital Government Strategy, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the U.S. Digital Service. They also had a hand in writing the second open-government plan, which set a Dec. 31, 2015, target for developing an open-source software policy that, with the Digital Services Playbook, "will support improved access to custom software code developed for the federal government."

The names have changed but the game remains the same, and Obama administration officials are confident that the program remains on track. The Office of Management and Budget is writing and will then implement the open-source policy, in conjunction with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

With the exception of VanRoekel, OMB will be under the same leadership, albeit with some shuffling of nameplates.

Acting U.S. CIO Lisa Schlosser has been leading the Office of E-Government and IT since VanRoekel's departure, and there has been no word yet from the White House on naming a new permanent CIO. Schlosser has been at the e-government office since 2011 and has worked on IT issues alongside the first CIO, Vivek Kundra, and then VanRoekel.

When Park left OSTP, a new CTO was named within a week: Megan Smith, former vice president of the Google X innovation lab. Smith has publicly supported the use of open source and called it "an evolutionary idea for humanity" in a Forbes interview.

OSTP and OMB have not specified who will be taking the lead on the effort, but they did say Smith; Corinna Zarek, Smith's senior adviser on open government; and other deputy CTOs -- including Nick Sinai, Ryan Panchadsaram and Alex Macgillivray -- would contribute.

A firm foundation

Although the administration committed to an open-source software policy only a month ago, the work has been underway for the past year.

Ben Balter, government evangelist at GitHub, said the early spade work will serve the initiative well in the absence of Park and VanRoekel.

"Like any good open-source project founders, VanRoekel and Park articulated a clear vision and created a community of passionate technologists around a shared challenge," said Balter, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow.

And neither man has left the scene entirely. Park relocated to the West Coast to recruit tech talent for government work, and VanRoekel shifted to the U.S. Agency for International Development to help address the Ebola outbreak.

Park is "still very much active and involved and will have a strong voice in making sure it's properly executed," said GovFresh Founder Luke Fretwell. "Ensuring a governmentwide open-source policy is implemented will be an important part of his long-term legacy on federal technology."

The software case

All the policy mandates in the world won't work, Fretwell argued, unless senior leaders are determined to push adoption at the agency level.

"There are a number of federal documents that already give agencies the green light to use open source, but adoption has been dependent on whether the CIO or CTO is comfortable deploying it," Fretwell said.

In the absence of an executive order -- and perhaps even if one is forthcoming -- what matters most is whether the people in the C-suites back the approach.

"What it comes down to is leadership and how important this is to them," John Scott, a director at Codeintel, told FCW.

Scott was one of the writers of the Defense Department's open-source software policy in 2008 when he was a Pentagon contractor. Although it took about a month to write the policy, it took an entire year to get officials to use it.

That points to another potential stumbling block: Not only do senior leaders need to back the policy, but developers who understand the software must become advocates and explain how it works and why it's important.

"Everything is software related," Scott said. "If software doesn't work, then government won't work."

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 28, 2014 Owen Ambur Silver Spring, MD

Yes, of course, the software used by government agencies should work and usage of open source software can help to increase the number of eyeballs that may be devoted to making it work. However, the software is not nearly so as important as the data (records). It should conform with the applicable open, machine-readable data standards -- in which case the taxpayers won't be on the hook to pay for proprietary or homegrown legacy software that is both too expensive as well as too hard to replace.

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