Technology on a Diet: 5 Reasons to Embrace Open Source

Even with shrinking budgets, agencies can innovate.

Sharing information in the name of innovation isn’t anything new. Collaborative intelligence helped publish the Oxford English Dictionary, spur advances in 19th century science and powered the world’s first automobile. Even Ben Franklin insisted on donating his bifocals and lightning rod to the public domain, likely dubbing him America’s first open-source advocate. The notion of “open source” predates software and the Internet by centuries, yet many of today’s largest government IT shops are still reluctant to turn to open alternatives from proprietary software, even in the face of shrinking budgets, overworked staff and heightened citizen expectations.

In my experience, open innovation fails to take hold in government organizations for three reasons:

  • The perceived lack of technical support available from open source communities.
  • A long history of “legacy thinking,” or the organization’s sustained reliance on enterprisewide proprietary systems.
  • Limited brand awareness among potential government customers. Granted, it’s pretty tough to compete with the marketing efforts of Silicon Valley.

For these reasons, open innovation relies primarily on peer-to-peer networking (i.e., word of mouth endorsements testifying to successful experiences) or individual curiosity (i.e., an adventuresome IT manager plugging into GitHub repositories and engaging with the development community.) This is a shame considering open source software creates a great opportunity for agencies to cut costs, promote innovation and foster intellectual engagement among its employees and stakeholders.

Here are five reasons why your organization should embrace open innovation as part of its technology strategy:

  1. Price Point. One of open source software’s most attractive (and well-documented) characteristics is its near-absent cost. Government entities may immediately procure new systems for almost nothing, avoid prohibitive licensing costs, and honestly test their stack without sunk costs looming overhead and affecting final decisions.
  2. Flexibility. Many IT professionals gripe about being locked in to a stringent, multiyear contract in which they become completely dependent on a vendor for new version releases and technical support. Organizations usually subscribe to the “one throat to choke” philosophy when agreeing to these terms. Yet by doing so, organizations surrender their ability to integrate new platforms with existing fringe systems and greatly limit the creativity and dexterity of in-house development staff. Avoid overpaying for robust enterprise suites—often laden with tangential capabilities unrelated to your mission—by deploying lightweight open source software that more precisely addresses your organization’s exact requirements.
  3. Ubiquity. Open standard languages such as PHP, Python and Ruby power some of the world’s largest businesses (read: Facebook, Bloomberg, Dropbox) mainly because of their utility across different functional areas. They also make up the core of most university computer science curricula, meaning that newly minted graduates can inject sophisticated data analytics, user-centered design and interactivity into your private and public-facing applications.
  4. Support. Open source combines the spirit of scientific peer review with entrepreneurial energy. Developers enhance, comment on and track changes to their projects in public GitHub repositories. This version-controlled resource gives government execs unprecedented access to coding expertise and assets just waiting to be scaled across all levels of an enterprise. Government technologists I’ve spoken with have almost unanimously praised the speed, skill and pride of ownership demonstrated by the open source support community.
  5. Engagement. Public service is at its best when government and citizens collaborate, so why not include both parties in your development cycle? Citizen engagement should be a continuous feedback loop: collect stakeholder requirements, implement programs, communicate value, repeat. Edify this relationship by sponsoring a hackathon to build a public data platform, inviting feedback on internal development efforts, or standing up a coding fellowship with a local university. Creative tactics like these will help energize your stakeholder base, streamline mission effectiveness, and expand your organization’s presence with the community.

Does this endorsement ring true to your experience? What successes or barriers have you come across when promoting open innovation in your organization?

Marc Leh is an associate consultant with the Corner Alliance. His areas of expertise include strategic planning, operational analysis, program management and stakeholder outreach.

(Image via Peshkova/