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Collaboration: Best Reason for Government Open Source?

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.