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U.S. Government Goes Open Source

Back in March, the White House released a draft of a Federal Source Code policy for public comment. The purpose of this policy was to “require new software developed specifically for or by the Federal Government to be made available for sharing and re-use across Federal agencies.” In other words, the government was going to go open source.  


The reasons for such a move are numerous. A couple of specific goals for the policy, emphasized in the announcement blog with bold text, were saving tax dollars, and encouraging innovation and collaboration between federal agencies. Saving money, unfortunately, is a goal thrown about endlessly in press releases from all levels of government, so a reflexive wariness of such a claim is understandable. However, saving money is virtually guaranteed when it comes to open sourcing software. Say a particular form-filling application is developed for the Department of Energy. If the Department of Defense also needed a form-filling application, it could use the Department of Energy’s application wholesale, or just as a starting point, saving potentially millions of dollars and months of development time over building its own, functionally-identical application from scratch. The federal government already spends more than $6 billion annually on software. No doubt that figure will continue to rise, but promoting code reuse and open source software can help ease the climb. The second goal, fostering innovation and collaboration, is, again, another widely used and abused one, but one that is immediately feasible in the context of open source software.

Last week, the official Federal Source Code Policy was released, outlining a plan for all new federal government software to be available for reuse across all agencies (with some exceptions, of course), and a pilot program for all federal agencies to release at least 20% of new, custom-developed software as open source software for three years. The latter rule in particular will create an environment of active, collaborative software development between the public, the federal government, and even private corporations, allowing technical knowledge to be shared easily across professional and civic divisions, and cultivating better application development through significantly broader user, developer, and knowledge bases. In some sense, you’ll be able to improve the operations of the United States government through a pull request.