Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part I

by Tom Adelstein

People believe that governments have embraced Linux and open-source software. You might see headlines saying that Linux advocates have made serious inroads in government. Logic dictates that Linux works well and the price is right, so why not?

This year, Oregon and Texas legislators introduced house and senate bills respectively supporting open-source software. Both legislative bills made their way to committee hearings, but the results differed significantly. Oregon's HB 2892 died. In Texas, SB 1579 found favor in the Committee and remains pending due to a walkout by approximately 50 members of the House.

California and Oklahoma also made attempts do some legislative mandating to use open-source software that died quietly. Rhode Island didn't see legislative action, but it did build a Linux portal for the state's rules and regulations database, which received good reviews.

Other states, such as Alabama, attempted grass roots efforts from their Information Service Departments to implement open-source initiatives. Grass roots efforts exist in Iowa, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana.

We discovered open-source initiatives in city and county government units across the country. Similar to commercial users of Linux, the various local efforts have started at the bottom. One city in a far northwestern state secretly deployed Linux to avoid an entanglement with a local software company. In Texas, Houston looks like a pioneer and has already seen reduced costs and saved taxpayer money.

Depending on your worldview, we could say the Open Source community made important strides or failed miserably in the past year. Regardless, we gained extensive knowledge of our situation in state and local government. This discussion covers specifics of our overall findings.

The Issues

The main thing a government unit considering open-source software wants to know is how it can save money. The people who answer to their constituents need to show cost cutting and a balanced budget.

A level below the legislators and government officials lays a large, permanent bureaucracy. The managers spend time working on technical issues such as reliability, continuity, security and interoperability. At lower levels, people maintain the existing systems with little funding for development. They need solutions they can deploy with little effort that fit seamlessly into their infrastructures.

Interested parties make up the final group with issues. These include advocates and the opposition. Here, I depict the opposition as well funded and organized. The advocates have little organization, financial resources and/or participants.

Saving Money

During the Texas hearing, Senate sponsor John Carona summed up the money situation nicely during the hearing before the Administrative Committee. He addressed the lobbyists making up the opposition and said:

Again, I don't understand why you all are so threatened by this, but from a careful look at the lobbyists in this room that are representing Microsoft, and all of you here representing proprietary software companies which—let's face it, that's where the big money is; it's not in open source, it's in proprietary—it's rather transparent as to why you all feel so threatened by this language. And I'll tell you, this [bill] is innocuous, but next session I'll be on a crusade.

Elected officials and state bureaucracies have little agility in the area of information technology budgets. Meanwhile, lobbyists and the popular press continue to say that open-source software provides little, if any cost savings. Analysts, such as Andrew Binstock of Pacific Data Works LLC, say governments are conservative when it comes to new technology.

Rhode Island became the first state government to implement open-source technology in view of the public. Jim Willis, the special project consultant for the Secretary of State, chose open-source software to implement an on-line rules and regulations database. The implementation used LAMP, which stands for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database and any of three development languages—PHP, Perl or Python.

The state developed the database-driven portal for $40,000. Hardware costs amounted to $6,000. Deployment cost $3,000, and the remaining funds went for overhead and one consultant working only two days a week for four months. The portal runs under Red Hat Linux 7.2 and sits on a Dell PowerEdge server that came with a MySQL database pre-installed. Ninety-five agencies use the portal to submit PDF files with information on rules and regulations to the Secretary of State's office. The database currently holds approximately 1,700 regulations.

The Political Opposition

Oregon became the first state government to see a bill progress to a legislative committee. Rep. Phil Barnhart submitted HB 2892 on March 5, 2003, which required the state government to consider using open-source software when acquiring new software.

The Oregon hearing gave open-source proponents in other states an opportunity to grasp the opposition's strategy. Their strategy began with attempts to convince a state committee that an open-source bill provides preferential legislation. They assert that such legislation tilts the playing field.

This theme persisted in both Oregon and Texas. Each opponent asserted the playing field was level and open-source legislation would introduce unfairness into the procurement process. They asserted “no law exists to prevent the state from acquiring open-source software now” and no law is needed to enable them to do so.

In the Oregon hearing the proponents testified first, followed by the opposition. In Texas, the proponents and opposition rotated. The Oregon sponsors, led by Ken Barber, did not have the opportunity to rebut the opposition. The Oregon sponsors felt they were at a disadvantage not knowing how the opposition would testify.

In Oregon, three industry groups and the state's Department of Information Services testified against the bill. The industry groups included the Business Software Alliance, Initiative for Software Choice and American Electronics Association (AeA), a powerful high-tech lobbyist group that testified for only one of its members. In Texas, the same people came to play, as did the Association for Competitive Technology and Intel.

One might ask, “Who are these lobbyists?”, so let's take a closer look. The first four suggest they represent software companies. The last opposition party manufactures chips and software for Linux.

Business Software Alliance

Better known as the BSA, this firm is the most formidable opponent of open-source software of which I know. BSA employs many former members of Preston, Gates & Ellis (PG&E), a practice specializing in intellectual property law. Many registered lobbyists in Washington DC work for PG&E and represent Microsoft and the BSA.

In reviewing registered lobbyists in Washington DC, we found employees of PG&E and BSA practicing in the area. They refer to themselves as the foremost organization dedicated to promoting a safe and legal on-line world. BSA also claims to be the voice of the world's commercial software industry before governments and the global market. The BSA employs highly dedicated and capable people. They believe in their cause and have a track record for getting the job done. Consider BSA to be of the highest professional caliber and experts in copyright law.

Initiative for Software Choice & CompTIA

In August 2002, Microsoft became a member of the Initiative for Software Choice. The ISC has close associations with the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) based in Washington DC. The ISC supports four principles: software should be procured on its merits, the promotion of government funded research, the promotion of interoperability through platform-neutral standards and the maintenance of strong intellectual property protections.

In August 2002, the organization reported it opposed legislation in four countries—Israel, Portugal, Colombia and the Ukraine—that require the use of open-source software in state institutions. I guess they read that Texas was once a country and decided to show up at the hearing.

American Electronics Association

Sixty-year-old AeA primarily involves itself in Government affairs. This group has a large membership and maintains significant clout in Congress and in state and local governments. It contends that it influences federal legislation and regulations. AeA tracks state legislation and regulations with a direct bottom line impact in 14 states. Ken Barber wrote that AeA ultimately killed the Oregon bill and maintains a significant influence on the Oregon Speaker of the House. We also read that in Oregon, AeA represented only one of its members.

Association for Competitive Technology

Founded in 1998, ACT represents industry members in computer software, hardware, consulting and the Internet. ACT says it prefers market-driven solutions over regulated ones, so it targets any attempt at government involvement. ACT holds an opposition to any law that would favor any software, regardless of the reasons.

ACT officially states that market forces drive the success of the IT industry. It also officially states that government intervention is uninformed. I believe it means to say that government officials who intervene in market forces are uninformed. ACT believes governments threaten to stifle innovation and competition. Perhaps it forgot to include economics 101 in its curriculum in college or missed the part about monopolies and free trade.


Someone needs to tell the executives at Intel that an employee representing the company showed up at the Texas committee hearing for the opposition.

Year-to-Date Outcomes

In Oregon, Speaker of the House Karen Minnis ordered HB 2892 killed. Reps. Barnhart and Wirth have attempted to resuscitate Oregon's open-source software bill with little success. Perhaps the irony of the Oregon situation lies in the fact that Linux is in widespread use in Oregon public school systems and in local government units.

Come to think of it, maybe the people at ACT found an acorn after all.

In Texas, time did not allow committee members to send SB 1579 to the House. Unlike Oregon, the Senate enjoys the support of the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR). In fact, DIR presented an open-source software recommendation to all agencies in Standards Review and Recommendation Publication, SRRPUB09-OSS. The recommendation states:

many of the applications used in government could be obtained and improved using the open source—this should support purchasing best value solutions and removing the reliance on an individual information technology vendor.

In subsequent parts of this series, we will look at individual cases where open-source software such as Linux works.

Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant in Dallas, Texas. His current interest lies in the field of web services, security and supporting Linux deployments.

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