Linux in Government: The Government Open Code Collaborative

Can a 'gated Open Source community' really work?
Do You See Anything Wrong with This Picture?

Have you ever heard the cliche about prisoners running the asylum? Well, this gated and restrictive organization fits. Get a group of academics together with management and grow the group in the infertile soil of bureaucracy, and you will spend almost all of your time waiting. Watching the group from a distance over the past year reminds one of inexperienced farmers trying to plant a field of corn by reading books.

GOCC.gov is a Cathedral trying to say it's a Bazaar. You might as well call the Java programming language open-source software. GOCC.gov goes through the motion of calling itself an open-source collaboration, yet it excludes the people that can bring the vision to fruition.

GOCC.gov ignores the existing base of software by excluding vendors from donating their solutions. It excludes contributors from the Linux and Open Source community not affiliated with a government or academic entity. So where will it find the people with the skills to develop the repository? Within its own infrastructure? Perhaps you now see why I used the cliche about asylums.

Can anyone see a business model here? Read the GOCC.gov charter and you discover that it has built one more bureaucracy to oversee its existing bureaucracy, with oversight over the new bureaucracy. What else would one expect?

In an article titled "IBM: 'Inertia' holding back government desktop Linux adoption", the executives of Big Blue identify inertia as the primary reason governments haven't adopted open-source solutions in England. IBM's public sector business development executive Jeremy Wray said, "[the] single biggest factor holding back government departments from migrating to the Linux desktop is inertia. At the moment public sector departments lack a compelling reason to act." Unwittingly, he has described a property of all bureaucratic organizations, one that IBM itself has helped foster. If bureaucracies don't have a problem to manage, they have no reason to exist.

The idea of inertia comes from Newton's first law. One definition identifies inertia as "the property of an object describing its tendency to stay at the same velocity (or at rest) unless a force acts on it". So inertia is a property, not a cause. Inertia is a property of bureaucracies, and it doesn't change unless acted on.

If you want to see how vigorous GOCC.gov has been over the past year, look at its list of software. That's right, you're looking at five pieces of software, one of which is an application. That's what GOCC.gov has accomplished in one year. If you think that's strange, consider also that it took this "Collaborative" six months to announce it existed.

Now, drop down to the membership list and look at the contributions from Texas. Click on that link, and you get "There are currently no items in this folder".

The CIO of my great state has taken some pride in letting people know that the "Texas Open Source Bill" hasn't passed and won't pass. As she has said in public, "it's dead". Yet, within Texas, the Department of Information Resources touts its open-source sharing plan, as seen here.

One of the touted programs in Texas is the Governor's Office database of solutions for free source code. When you visit the Web site, you find the same solutions that have existed for two years. You also can find the same testimonial that has existed for the same time period. This is an attempt to say they have all these pieces together so the legislature won't force the issue as they tried in 2003. Unfortunately, the Senator sponsoring SB 1579 understands the issues and plans to act in 2005.

Can GOCC.gov Work?

In its present condition, GOCC.gov cannot work. In a closed community, a member must receive some benefit to join. If I join and contribute software, what do I receive in return? If the operation is gated and closed and I must provide software support, I at least need to be able to swap for something in return. If I can download any software for free without becoming a member, why would I want to expose my organization to legal liability? When you look at the GOCC Operating Agreement and at the organization, someone outside of the Collaborative--"the Member contributing code"--assumes liability for the code working. Why would I want to do that?

Read the GOCC Operating Agreement to get an idea of the restrictions placed on those who can contribute code and their responsibilities. The restrictions and the lack of incentive provide no cost-benefit ratio. Governments have accountability to their constituents, and GOCC.gov needs to ask two simple questions: Why do constituents have to be the first ones to pay for the application, spend the money supporting it and risk liability? And what do they get in return?

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A problem of cooperation

Andy Stein's picture

James Surowiecki in his recent book “The Wisdom of Crowds

A problem of cooperation

Anonymous's picture

Mr. Stein,

After reading your explanation, I'm further convinced that the author's point about bureaucratic inertia rings true. As a student of psychology and sociative behavior, I have to reach back to one of essential tenets of Freud: The essence of society is repression of the individual subsequently the essential of the individual is repression of self.

Your explanation sounds like a rationalization, reason, excuse, belief and justification as to why you and your associates have no sense of urgency. I guess you forgot that this nation faces an emergency -- defined as something needing immediate attention -- called a war on terror.

Terrorist want to destroy our culture, our life and annihilate (carry off, decimate, eliminate, eradicate, extinguish, wipe out) the state of Israel, all Jews worldwide and all Christians worldwide. They want to invade our homeland, murder children in schools, explode atomic and nuclear weapons, expose our food supply to poison, contaminate our water supply and have our blood run in the streets.

Frankly, I have no sympathy for you, your organization, your excuses or your "good old boy" network. You are the repressors, you hold back the hundreds of thousands of technologist with a sense of urgency to get a perponderance of software distributed and to cut the costs of doing business.

It's odd to me that Afghanistan and Iraq have both embraced Linux and have put together a government infrasturcture with free software while in our country, you and your associates talk about what to do.

How do you look at yourself in the morning, ride in the same car with yourself, have an authentic conversation with anyone?

In my field, we would say you are in total denial. Wake up!

Right on target

Martin Tullier's picture

I am a worker bee for the Office of Information Technology in county government. We have every hardware platform under the sun. Most of this is vendor driven by way of client departments. There are some concerned about "takings" where the government displaces the opportunity to make money with software by the private sector. As Tom points out, I find local government is a lot of hurry up wait. This causes very slow uptake of new technology. We are still running an IBM mainframe programming in Cobol. I keep asking why we run not running Linux on it in addition. Yes there are web/Java initiatives but those are done primarily by contractors creating one off solutions very slowly.

Why should a local government build a flexible solution for other municipalities? Typically, they are purpose built applications for the method of operation in a particular municipality. These could morph into more broadly useful applications if they were offered to the Open Source community.

I spent some time thinking about this about 18 months ago. Complete open source success in local government would displace most of the programming staff in a inside out metamorphosis; Open Source pulled inside turning the unneeded coding staff out of a job. The only remaining staff would be application caretakers. Local government programming staff had better learn all they can about open source solutions or they may be out of a job. Like the very successful Open Source application like LAMP etc… there will be vertical applications for the local government that will offer professional support contracts.

In the world of Open Source, Government Open Code Collaborative is a relatively small vertical market that is incredibly dependent on the much broader worldwide resource of Open Source. When they wake up and smell the coffee maybe they will have a clue.

Colin, I am a very big fan of the work done by your company VA Software.

Tom, thanks for the article and keep up the good work.

This represents a personal statement and not the views, ideas or opinion of my employer.

Disapointing

Colin Bodell, VA Software's picture

Interesting that as of 4 December 2004 there are only five published applications, and non is more recent than August 2004. Sad that such an initiative appears to have almost no support from the agencies it was establsihed to serve.

I'm CTO of VA Software -- parent company of SourceForge.net, freshmeat, slashdot and other Open Source sites. I tried to contact the site webmaster to ask if we could post a link on SourceForge.net to direct govt. employees to the site -- the e-mail was returned as undeliverable(!). I was very encouraged to see the site launched, however it's disapointing that this appears to have gone nowhere. Perhaps the site admin or person/people responsible for ths site and the initiative could contact me (and representatives of other Open Source supportive sites) to help encourage patronage of the site?

Col

RE: The Government Open Code Collaborative

Christopher Fowler's picture

As a peripheral member of the GOCC I feel compelled to speak up for the GOCC while not necessarily representing the GOCC or the views of its members.

First let me be clear that many members of the GOCC contribute their time voluntarily. While there is no doubt a layer of bureaucracy covering the GOCC it should be noted that this is not a "government" program. No member that I am aware of has been told that they "have" to participate. The importance of this is that there are heartfelt motivations to see that the GOCC works.

It is also important to realize that the layering of bureaucracy accomplishes several things. First it is designed to achieve controlled growth so that the project does not implode on itself. Second it is there so that future members can continue the operations of the GOCC without having to have institutional knowledge. Third it establishes ground rules for the organization. This does not mean that the rules can't change. It just means that everyone knows what the expectations are.

Regarding the "closed gate" approach to Open Source one must keep in mind of what the GOCC is trying to accomplish. It is not trying to be an open-source repository. While I'm sure everyone appreciates Source-Forge (I know I do), the GOCC is not trying to be a Source-Forge. The GOCC is trying to encourage sharing code, applications, and processes between the various governmental agencies through-out the US. I'm not sure why having a moderated source for Government related software development is a bad thing. While individually we may enforce large scale applications like Zope/Plone, there is no need to house the code on the GOCC. There are plenty of avenues to share code - this is just one. I undestand your use of the asylumn metephore, but I would prefer to use this one: "For the People by the People".

Finally let me make clear that the GOCC is a work in progress. Slow work? Sure - but again a great deal of this is done with volunteer effort. Will the GOCC open it's doors to more contributers? Potentially - but it needs to get it's footing solid first.

Christopher Fowler
Software Developer of eGovernment and Information Technology
State of Rhode Island
Office of Secretary of State

Christopher Fowler's Comments

Ray Trygstad's picture

During my time in the Navy we always had serious chuckles about other Navy organizations who developed software, and then wanted us to pay for the software (i.e. transfer some of our OPTAR [budget] to their OPTAR). Since all works prepared for hire or by employees of the federal government are in the public domain in the United States, we would ask them exactly what we were paying for and of course they would tell us "support". We would then find out if the software was any good, and if it was we would get a "pass-along" copy from some other unit and just use it. If it required much in the way of support, we didn't have much use for it anyway, because we were going to get precious little support on a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific. In any case, there should be PILES of software to go in this repository, since all Federally developed software is already in the public domain!

--Ray
Ray Trygstad
Illinois Institute of Technology

Christopher Fowler's comment

Anonymous's picture

It's normal for someone in the bureaucracy to become defensive when someone from outside nudges them. The author's point was to nudge you in the first place. As a program auditor, I think the author has made an important observation. GOCC appears to have taken the shape of a bureau instead of dropping it's cultural roots and using a new model or paradigm.

In other words, you have taken the open source model and adapted it to a federated system rather than the other way around. The model of a closed or gated community is inherently evil in terms of repression of individuals, society in general and taking on accountability.

I don't care how many hours you work. That's simply a rationalization for the organization's ground of being. A rationalization is a wrong reason for wrong behavior - but it's a reason and it allows you to cope.

GOCC is not about "People for the people" unless you mean the people exist so the bureaucrat can have a job. No service exists here. This is centralist thinking at its highest.

I also believe the points about inertia ring true. Governments or related entities or products of government will stay in a state of inertia unless acted upon. Look at your results not at your reasons.

I think the article was fair and also balanced. He gave your vision first read and then asked the pertinent question. Not often done in journalism these days.

Should Local Gov't Have a Unique License?

L Jean Camp's picture

>In other words, you have taken the open source model and adapted it to a federated >system rather than the other way around.

I believe, despite the rather odd malevolence in this post, this is very close to GOCC.

GOCC is indeed taking a multi-layered government system with unique concerns about transparency, not competing with the private sector, and being risk-averse and fitting open source to that organizational reality. It is a compliment to open code that this flexibility exist. GOCC is not, as some apparently would wish, waiting for fundamental change in adopting a new paradigm of government (ecotopia? corporate libertarianism? radical federalism?) that fits perfectly with Sourceforge in all cases and for all code. Rather GOCC is developing licenses and agreements that work with the local and state public sector as they currently exist for those situations where general purpose code is not available.

GOCC is uniquely concerned about transparency in contributions because the adoption of a system with IPR by governments would be a very good way to force a monopoly. After all, everyone must interface with government. Own a little bit of that format, and everyone would have to pay you to interface with government. Open contributions create IPR risks. The certainty that government will continue to exist, and that some functions absolutely must be implemented makes government software a very good target for a loss-leader lock-in strategy. The legal concerns are a significant reason that the progress appears, from the outside, so slow.

Government is unique in that every other group or party is unconcerned with competing with the private sector. Government has to be careful that they are not re-inventing the wheel, or worse yet putting all the national wheel companies out of business. This is, in part, why there is a small number of specific implementations on the server. No, GOCC does not host software available elsewhere. This is not a problem. The code, by definition, is available elsewhere. Where code exists and serves government as well as general needs there is no need to develop a group to create and share such code. Yes, Tom made this observation with sarcasm, but without the sarcasm the fundamental idea is obviously sound.

Local and state governments are risk averse. In general, people who pay taxes prefer a risk averse approach to spending money and time. Revolutionary rather than evolutionary change may be attractive on an ideological basis, but it tends to prove less attractive in practice than in theory.

Given this set of concerns GOCC has developed a legal agreement and an authentication mechanism with policies that will work across state and local governments. Certainly just slapping something up there and sharing passwords in an ad-hoc manner would have been faster, and more in the spirit of some open code projects. It also would have doomed the project to either slow death by a thousand cuts or large scale disaster. These contributions are extremely valuable. GOCC has built a foundation, and is expanding its code and its membership. No, Bill Gates cannot, at this point, join. Yes, we have the people who have read the manual - on government - to built the authentication model.

>The model of a closed or gated community is inherently evil in terms of repression of >individuals, society in general and taking on accountability.

And this quote, by a following poster, basically sums up Tom's analysis: Closed is bad.

Moving government to a free (as in beer) and open (as in democratic) code base it too important to accept this vacuous analysis.

Local and state governments are unique. As such, local and state governments may require unique licenses for some of their distinctive code for distinctive functions. GOCC is developing that unique code within the appropriate organizational framework. GOCC is using available general purpose code when feasible, and developing code only when it is not.

Finally, the observation that universities hinder open code must have been meant to be humorous, given the critical role of universities in open code - especially MIT.

regards,
Jean Camp

Christopher Fowler's comment

Anonymous's picture

On the subject of defending the GOCC: anytime you point out a problem in a bureaucracy, the members start to circle the wagons. That's why they have been loathed throughout history.

Einstein said it better than anyone and perhaps this is all the article should have said: Title - GOCC: A closed "Open Source" Community.

Body:

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. - Albert Einstein

Respectfully submitted.

Author

Collaborative Model for technology sharing

Jim McManus's picture

The Department of the Secretary of State has been watching GOCC from it's inception from a unique perspective. Rather than be an active participant we have chosen to create the KB Consortium, a collaborative model organization. We developed an application suite (SOSKB) which we share with other jurisdictions There are over a dozen states using our software and many more in the process of aquisition. We do not charge the jurisdiction for the software, they simply sign a licensing agreement and become a member of the KB Consortium. They are free to do anything they want to with the code under the limitations of the agreement. Primarily, that means they cannot share the code the private sector or an unlicensed public sector entity. They benefit from code development provided by new (and existing) jurisdictions, since it is shared with Consortium members. Implementation services are provided by Consortium approved vendors. This allows the jurisdiction to concentrate their resources on implementation rather than aquisition. The Consortium also provides a model through which third parties can develop interfaces to SOSKB at great cost savings. They build their side once and underwrite the SOSKB interface once and it is applicable to all Consortium members. We have already used this process to underwrite an application for submitting online annual reports. I haven't even mentioned the application specifications but that isn't the point of this reply. The point is to draw attention to a successful exercise in distributing technology across jurisdictional lines in a cost effective manner and insuring the future success of participants through collaboration. Additional information about SOSKB and the KB Cosortium is available from Jim McManus, Applications Development Manager - NC Department of the Secretary of State jmcmanus@sosnc.com (919)807-2191

"Open Source ?????" or "Collaboration"

Jim McManus's picture

The Department of the Secretary of State has been watching GOCC from it's inception from a unique perspective. Rather than be an active participant we have chosen to create the KB Consortium, a collaborative model organization. We developed an application suite (SOSKB) which we share with other jurisdictions There are over a dozen states using our software and many more in the process of aquisition. We do not charge the jurisdiction for the software, they simply sign a licensing agreement and become a member of the KB Consortium. They are free to do anything they want to with the code under the limitations of the agreement. Primarily, that means they cannot share the code the private sector or an unlicensed public sector entity. They benefit from code development provided by new (and existing) jurisdictions, since it is shared with Consortium members. Implementation services are provided by Consortium approved vendors. This allows the jurisdiction to concentrate their resources on implementation rather than aquisition. The Consortium also provides a model through which third parties can develop interfaces to SOSKB at great cost savings. They build their side once and underwrite the SOSKB interface once and it is applicable to all Consortium members. We have already used this process to underwrite an application for submitting online annual reports. I haven't even mentioned the application specifications but that isn't the point of this reply. The point is to draw attention to a successful exercise in distributing technology across jurisdictional lines in a cost effective manner and insuring the future success of participants through collaboration. Additional information about SOSKB and the KB Cosortium is available from Jim McManus, Applications Development Manager - NC Department of the Secretary of State jmcmanus@sosnc.com (919)807-2191

"Open Source ?????" or "Collaboration"

Jim McManus's picture

The Department of the Secretary of State has been watching GOCC from it's inception from a unique perspective. Rather than be an active participant we have chosen to create the KB Consortium, a collaborative model organization. We developed an application suite (SOSKB) which we share with other jurisdictions There are over a dozen states using our software and many more in the process of aquisition. We do not charge the jurisdiction for the software, they simply sign a licensing agreement and become a member of the KB Consortium. They are free to do anything they want to with the code under the limitations of the agreement. Primarily, that means they cannot share the code the private sector or an unlicensed public sector entity. They benefit from code development provided by new (and existing) jurisdictions, since it is shared with Consortium members. Implementation services are provided by Consortium approved vendors. This allows the jurisdiction to concentrate their resources on implementation rather than aquisition. The Consortium also provides a model through which third parties can develop interfaces to SOSKB at great cost savings. They build their side once and underwrite the SOSKB interface once and it is applicable to all Consortium members. We have already used this process to underwrite an application for submitting online annual reports. I haven't even mentioned the application specifications but that isn't the point of this reply. The point is to draw attention to a successful exercise in distributing technology across jurisdictional lines in a cost effective manner and insuring the future success of participants through collaboration. Additional information about SOSKB and the KB Cosortium is available from Jim McManus, Applications Development Manager - NC Department of the Secretary of State jmcmanus@sosnc.com (919)807-2191

"Open Source ?????" or "Collaboration"

Anonymous's picture

"They are free to do anything they want to with the code under the limitations of the agreement. Primarily, that means they cannot share the code the private sector or an unlicensed public sector entity."

Why shouldn't they share with the private sector or unlicensed public sector entity? The software you developed was paid for by the citizens and you are sharing it only with your friends. At least you /are/ sharing it.

regards,
Gus Bjorklund

"Open Source ?????" or "Collaboration"

Anonymous's picture

This is a ridiculous thread. It's not even relevant to the topic. It's just another mental fabrication to justify the policy of another government program's take on what should be called open source. Hello?

Look, it's either open source or it's not pertinent. Very black and white. And saying "at least you're sharing it" is another take on the same ridiculous point. It's not "open", it's closed.

"Open Source ?????" or "Collaboration"

Anonymous's picture

This is a ridiculous thread. It's not even relevant to the topic. It's just another mental fabrication to justify the policy of another government program's take on what should be called open source. Hello?

Look, it's either open source or it's not pertinent. Very black and white. And saying "at least you're sharing it" is another take on the same ridiculous point. It's not "open", it's closed.

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