Open Source in the Public Sector

There are times when it is hard to believe that anything innovative is happening in Washington. At the recent World Government Summit on Open Source, though, it became clear that over the past several years there has been a quiet transformation in the way government agencies are using technology.

Throughout the course of the October 11 event, which is a gathering for open source advocates in the public sector, I noticed a trend in the conversation. There was a simple idea we kept returning to again and again: Open source software is influencing government today, and in a big way.

Government adoption of open source software is unprecedented. It’s no secret that Drupal is one of the largest CMS technologies used by government agencies, with 24 percent of all .gov websites using Drupal. The bigger story, however, is that the adoption of Drupal and other open source technologies is also encouraging the adoption of open source principles. The adoption of these principles has the potential to influence the relationship between government and the people they represent.

What exactly are these principles? They are that openness, cooperation, and the public sharing of ideas can bring the best outcomes. We only need to look at the Apple App Store or the structure of the Internet itself to see that decentralized collaboration is a winning model. What if governments could operate on these very same principles of decentralized collaboration? In some ways, they already are.

Just over a year ago, the White House created an online tool called We The People, which citizens could use to create and sign online petitions on the issues that mattered to them. It’s an interesting idea, and one that has garnered much interest over the last year. But instead of stopping there, they decided that a tool like this could be useful for other groups at all levels of government. On August 23, the entire codebase was shared publically on Github, available for anybody to download and use as they wished. Since then, the project has been “forked” more than 80 times by individuals and organizations that are interested in using or contributing to these tools. Other examples like this have been described by Jennifer Pahlka of the Code for America organization and by author and TED speaker Clay Shirky. This isn’t an isolated event but rather a trend that is being embraced with enthusiasm. Doesn’t it make sense that a government funded by public tax dollars should give value back to the public wherever it can? It does to me.

This is only the beginning. We live in an increasingly connected world. A world where the frictionless sharing of ideas and information is shrinking the distance between government officials and the people they represent. This is the time for government to work directly with the people in finding technical solutions for better governance. The greatest technological breakthroughs of our time did not happen because of a few lone geniuses in a back room. Rather, they happened by adopting the right attitudes and platforms that led to collaboration on a global scale. So stay tuned. These changes are coming to a government near you.