Obama, McNealy, and Cognitive Dissonance

Courtesy Han Soete, licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

Gene Quinn’s recent post titled “What Happened to the Obama Open Source Initiative?” criticizes, in turns, open source software, Scott McNealy, the Obama administration, and “business newbies” who want to use the open source software model.

Early in the Administration, President Obama asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to prepare a report on how the federal government could employ open source software, but Quinn notes that “as yet, some 26 months later there has been no mention of the report or across the board government adoption of open source software.” The article then draws this strange conclusion:, “Perhaps the trouble associated with coming out with a report or even a government wide coherent approach is that open source software is not really free really.”

Yeah, I didn’t understand, either. To summarize:

  • The President shouldn’t have commissioned a report on open source software.
  • Scott McNealy shouldn’t have been asked.
  • The follow-through on the report has been poor.
  • Therefore, open source isn’t really free.

Disappointingly, Quinn doesn’t stitch these points together, robbing me of the opportunity to refute him. Instead, he uses the McNealy story as a christmas tree from which he may hang his favorite open source bugbears. I’m forced to content myself with refuting these instead.

The Hazards of Open Data Exceptionalism

Frustrated USAspending.gov users, courtesy naersjoen. Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

The prospect of funding cuts for e-Gov initiatives like data.gov, USAspending.gov and friends is worrying. Everyone should join the Sunlight Foundation’s effort to Save the Data. At the same time, this is a good opportunity for reflection.

There’s no doubt that the proliferation of Open Government websites has been a great first step for transparency and accountability. Despite the flaws, most of us see the promise of something very powerful in these projects.

I can feel strongly about the value of these programs and still be mystified at the $18M cost of recovery.gov when RATB has surely already built their own internal system to do basically the same thing. This has me thinking.

Why create one set of tools for citizens, and another for internal use? It seems that services like USAspending.gov should be part of the usual operation of OMB, rather than some special e-Gov project that’s vulnerable to budget cuts. Why a distinct and conspicuous line item for USAspending.gov, when it’s a citizen-friendly face on the $24M Federal Procurement Data System? Why not spend that money instead on improving FPDS, and making it more usable for both the public and the government?

Open Source in Government: Who was first?

Brian Purchia of Burson-Marsteller has a post over on GovFresh about the value of open source to unions. His argument pivots on cost-savings. I think you could make a more expansive argument that includes risk mitigation and innovation, but describing the advantage to unions is an interesting angle I hadn’t seen before.

I noticed that Brian repeated the misunderstanding that San Francisco had the nation’s first open source policy. I don’t want to diminish his larger argument, but it’s important that we give credit where credit’s due. So for the record:

  • May 28, 2014: DOD issues the “Stenbit memo,” which assures readers that open source is commercial software under the law, and can be used in the DOD.
  • July 1, 2015: OMB issues OMB-04-16, making clear that open source can be used in the Federal Government
  • September 30 2009: Portland, OR is the first city to issue an open source policy.
  • October 16, 2009: The US Department of Defense CIO issues a memo reiterating that open source software is commercial software for procurement purposes, and encouraging DOD branches to include open source when they’re picking software.
  • January 7, 2010: California‘s open source policy is published.