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How agencies can take a page out of industry's open playbooks

Shutterstock image (by Your Design): Human head creating a new idea.

When Department of Defense CIO Terry Halvorsen spoke at a late-2016 AFCEA NOVA event, he honed in on a single word: “faster.”

“How do we move faster?” he asked. “How do we partner faster? How do we collaborate faster?”

The answer lies not only in the technology that agencies procure, but in the processes and people they use to manage said technology. That includes the establishment of more open cultures and DevOps practices combined with broader use of open source software.

The enterprise influence

This shift toward “open” has been gradually taking place over the past few years and, for some organizations, can represent a marked departure from the normal ways of doing business. It’s no longer enough for governments to focus solely on technology, supplying grants and venture capital to commercial firms in the hopes that they will develop products that address agency needs. While initiatives such as DIUx and similar State Department and Department of Homeland Security programs are admirable first steps, it’s also important to factor in the people, process, and cultural innovations that are coming out of the startups that these agencies are using -- and the agencies themselves.

In addition to influencing companies to make products that solve agency challenges, government agencies should be influenced by the way these companies produce those products. They should take a page out of their corporate cousins’ open playbooks and adjust their IT structures to incorporate the following three components:

1. An open organizational culture

As my company’s CEO once wrote, “whether your business is to provide wholesome food or to write software that runs nuclear submarines, if you can create a compelling reason for people to participate, they will.”

Participation is spurred by engagement -- everyone on the team being willingly involved in the process of creation. That engagement is driven by everyone having a voice in the development cycle. If every employee believes that their work and ideas will be used to drive the agency forward, they’ll be more inclined to innovate and inspire each other across the organization. That openness and passion, also illustrated in the Open Decision Framework, is at the heart of digital transformation.

2. A DevOps-based operation

Ask someone which version of Facebook or Gmail they’re running you're likely to get puzzled silence as a response. There’s a good reason for that; it’s very likely they’re using the latest, most stable version. That’s a direct result of Facebook’s and Google’s development teams operating in a DevOps fashion, which enables them to develop and deploy applications faster and more reliably, at less cost.

DevOps is a component of an open culture because it closely ties together development and operations teams. They collaborate with each other on application development and use automation to deliver software and facilitate changes, which speeds up the process. By working together, each team has a better understanding of one another’s needs. This close relationship enables agencies to innovate and develop more quickly while pressure-testing applications on production deployments, enabling them to be more resilient and antifragile.

3. An infrastructure built on open source

Still, technology -- specifically open source software -- often plays a critical role. In fact, it should be an underlying linchpin that supports the people and processes an agency has in place.

For years, agencies have looked to open source software as a foundational element of application development, as it has many benefits. Open source can be easy to procure and integrate. As such, it helps agencies to fail faster in order to succeed sooner, which can lower the cost of failure. It can also minimize the need for Competitive Research and Development Agreements, which can be costly to set up and maintain. And open source fosters the concept that the best ideas win in the open.

Indeed, some of the best ideas are coming out of the open source community, which is comprised of companies large and small. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and others have joined with smaller organizations and individual developers to keep pushing open source forward. Many of the businesses that government agencies have targeted for technology solutions are preeminent contributors to open source software and open hardware and datacenter designs.

A holistic focus

Today, the federal government is relatively small compared to the global consumer marketplace. Consider that Apple could make an iPhone specific to government and sell tens or hundreds of thousands of units. But why would the company do that when it can sell 1 billion of the devices in the general marketplace? Plus, moving technology to private networks for classified use might not be feasible, as the non-recurring engineering costs for industry can simply be too hard to justify.

Therefore, government agencies are well advised to look beyond just technology if they are to achieve true digital transformation. They must holistically consider a combination of people, processes, and technology. That’s a winning trifecta that will help agencies move faster and more efficiently.

About the Author

David Egts is the chief technologist of Red Hat's Public Sector organization, specializing in the application of open-source enterprise technologies at federal, state and local government agencies and educational institutions.

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