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Collaboration: Best Reason for Government Open Source?

Oct 19, 2007, 22:30 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

There seems to be a disconnect between what users want for their computing needs, and what vendors think they want. A glaring example of this was made apparent to me at the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) earlier this week.

Before, and during, the conference, which targeted mid- to upper-level government IT managers, the greatest advantage of open source in government seems to be collaboration. After all, presenters and vendors told the audience, with open source you can collaborate between your in-house developers and developers throughout the world on the projects you need. End-products can be shared too, as software written for one jurisdiction could be easily copied, re-modified, and put to use in other jurisdictions.

These advantages, to me, make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, given my discussions with the attendees, very few government users and developers seem to be adopting open source software for collaborative reasons. Instead, the advantages of cost and breaking vendor lock-in seem to be more attractive, at least to these attendees.

The collaboration-is-great model seems to breakdown in real life. Tom Cort, a Systems Developer at the Vermont Department of Taxes, gave a good presentation on how to start an open source state government project. Cort covered the basics, highlighted potential bugaboos--licensing, language, etc.--and indicated that his own state agency wanted to try their sales tax portal project because they were confident that they would get developer help from the outside world and would be able to share their project with 17 other states that use a similar sales tax policy, known as Streamlined Sales Tax.

But, near the end of the presentation, Cort admitted that to date, very few outside contributors pitched in on their project, and no other state was actively using their portal software. He did not elaborate on why there were no outside developers, but he did cite that other states were using Microsoft-oriented tools and applications to build their own portals. He hoped that as more states moved to the Streamlined Sales Tax program Vermont was using, the existence of their portal would be noticed by the newcomer states.

In the Vermont example, there is a unifying über-policy that should make it relatively easy for interstate agencies to share code. But without such policies between states, sharing software can be difficult. One attendee who works at a corrections department in one Western state, recently led a project to re-use open source software from another Western state. It was far more complicated than a simple swap-out of logos and names, he told me, because there were significant legislative differences between how his state and the donor state handled prisoners. His IT department is still trying to figure out if it would have been less expensive in time and money to have just built the application from scratch.

For the most part, attendees were telling me that the big attractor of open source for them was the cost. Being mostly from county and state organizations, their resources were typically very limited, and getting something (either basic tools or pre-made applications) for little to no cost was something on which they were very keen.

Collaboration, mind you, is not a bad selling point. But as the number one selling point for government agencies, it may not be the best selling point. Vendors might want to start rethink their sales tactics into the public sector.