4 Ways To Help the Government Adopt Open Source Technologies

Bob Sutor, Vice President of Open Source and Standards at IBM, issued a challenge to the open source community for 2008. One of his ten challenges to the community was:

“Help governments adopt free and open source-friendly IT policies that permit maximal apples-to-apples comparisons of FOSS and proprietary software with regard to relative value for total cost of ownership, local business generation, and innovation of technology for the social good.”

It is difficult to convince anyone of an apples to apples comparison when a proponent, in this case, the sales forces of proprietary software, sits at the ear of the decision-maker issuing a stream of “yes, but” rebuttals.

Thus, in order for the FOSS community to convince the government of its value, it will need to take several steps to level the playing field.

  1. **Find champions who are respected in the community of government decision-makers **The vendors of proprietary software already have those champions and they are already within the decision cycle. Few open source systems have such a champion. It will likely take a consortium of the major players (IBM is already doing a good job in leading the charge, and others can join in) in one unified voice to make significant headway.
  2. **Speak the language of the decision makers **The most common rallying cry for making comparisons to proprietary software is total cost of ownership. The story neither begins nor ends with TCO. Issues like security, reliability, and support weigh heavily on the minds of CIOs and CTOs in the government, and often, they are more important than cost.
  3. Make it easy for those in the government to become educated about FOSSThere is still a significant amount of ignorance about what FOSS actually means. The perception is that open source means anyone can get into the code, make changes, and run gleefully away snickering about the great virus they just inserted. Education about what open source software is and the process of open source projects will help decision makers see what they are and they arent getting. Another audience to target is the government legal community. A myriad of licenses exist, although certainly no more than the vast array of EULAs the government agrees to in buying proprietary software licenses, so educating government lawyers on the obligations of these licenses will lower the barriers to entry for the decision makers.
  4. Engage an honest brokerEveryone has an agenda. It is inevitable. FOSS proponents will want to push FOSS at the expense of proprietary vendors, and vice versa. Its what salespeople are hired to do. Instead, look to an organization like MITRE, which states as one of its missions: “applying emerging, state-of-the-art technologies to real-world problems.” MITRE seeks the best possible outcome for the government, not a vendor, so getting the government to engage an organization like MITRE to create the comparison criteria will most likely result in a framework which the government can and will trust.

Just as with any decision maker, unless an objective set of criteria exist, the government is probably going to go with the vendor that has the best sales team. Given that sales teams for open source projects are not numerous, the best alternative, as Bob Sutor has pointed out, is for the open source community to help develop a set of objective criteria to make equivalent comparisons between FOSS and COTS solutions.