Feds Get E for Effort with Open Source

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January 24, 2011 – The majority of U.S. Cabinet-level offices in the federal government received a failing mark in their open source efforts, though a few others, such as the Department of Defense, excelled in a recent report card from an advocacy group.

Open Source for America (OSFA), an organization of technology industry officers, nongovernment associations and academic institutions, gauged 15 federal offices on how they’ve followed through on an open source directive from President Barack Obama. It’s an effort they claim could save billions in technology costs and lead to more transparency, though RedMonk analyst Michael Coté warns about hefty costs in training and not finding the best programs for government officials.

After a three-month review based on Obama’s open source initiatives, OSFA found only one-third of Cabinet-level departments scored over 50 percent in open source adoption in their “Federal Open Technology Report Card.” The agencies with the highest open source scores – Defense (82 percent) and Energy (72 percent) – have software code created in-house as open source. OSFA noted that other agencies would do well to follow the examples of these high-scoring offices.

All agencies publish at least some forms in open file document standards and accept public files in various document formats. Also, all agencies scored well on issues of publishing and transparency with their websites, OSFA found.

The advocacy group stated that general low marks for open source could be understood because it is the first year the program was in effect. In the report card, it pushed for internal policies that encourage open standards and allow for acquisition of open source software that can be recognized as commercial software, which the group said could save billions in taxpayer money.

Coté agrees that IT costs could be greatly reduced with wide adoption of open source technology, as well as the option to connect with constituents and developer communities.

“It's important to keep in mind that open source doesn't always ensure good software or software that you want. You don't want a blanket policy of using only open source or mandating some percentage of open source,” says Coté. “You'll end up with stuff that may not always be the best option: just like if you had a blanket policy of using only closed source.”

In addition, Coté says the increasing use of software as a service in IT makes open source adoption a “moot point.”

To read the executive summary of the report and other links, click here.

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