Government should procure custom software as open source.

Government software becomes vastly better when it’s procured as open source.

Normally, government buys closed-source custom software. Government never looks at the source code. The public can’t inspect it. Is it any good? No, it is not. There is no incentive to make it good. In fact, there’s a perverse incentive: hard to maintain means they keep the contract.

It’s not literally impossible to have bad code and good software, but let us agree that these things generally do not go hand in hand. Everything works a lot better if the vendors are producing great code.

Declaring right up in the RFP that all work will be public domain, developed in an open code repository, has a lot of great effects. The first is that vendors that write garbage code will self-select out of the running. They just won’t bid. You’re left with competent teams.

The second benefit is that those vendors that do bid will put their best people on that work. The vendors will want their work to look good. Anybody can look at their output, now and forever, including potential clients and potential hires. That’s unusual!

The third benefit is that the best developers will want to work on these projects at these vendors. A rare opportunity for their work to be seen by the public! By future employers! By their peers! Normally they toil in obscurity, but not on an open source project.

The fourth benefit is that it will be vastly easier to switch vendors (if need be), or hire new vendors to build onto this code base. Because it’s all public! They’ll know exactly what they’re getting into. That’s important because uncertainty is reflected in higher bids.

When everybody is working in the open, everybody’s interests are aligned: government, vendors, the vendor teams, and the public. When procuring closed source software, nobody’s interests are aligned. Government needs to stop doing that.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

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