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Doubling down on government technology by Luke Fretwell

Doubling down on government technology by Luke Fretwell

Originally posted on govfresh.com.     We’ve recently seen an uptick in venture capital interest around government and civic technology startups, but before we enthusiastically celebrate these investments, we must ask ourselves whether this potential bubble will truly reshape government IT or simply leave us five years from now in the same place we are today.

During the Code for America Summit in September, Govtech Fund’s Ron Bouganim and Code for America Director of Products & Startups Lane Becker had a great “Emerging Startup Ecosystem” discussion about the the difference between civic and government technology, and the latter’s focus on solving inherent bureaucratic problems.

Bouganim’s closing comments have stuck with me since watching the interview, and they’re important for us all to think about as we commit to building technology solutions, whether it’s for internal government operations or public-facing citizen engagement applications:

“It is tough because it’s early. Clearly everybody in this room is transformers. These are the folks … that are at the front of this, so it’s tough, because you often at times feel alone, but I think there’s a growing community, and it’s only going to get better. So, I guess my fundamental advice is that if you’re really passionate about this space, and you really identify a big problem, you have to kind of double down on being an entrepreneur. It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur and, in an emerging space like gov tech, you have to double down on that, and I would just encourage you to stick with it.”

Announced in September, Govtech Fund will invest $23 million into government-focused technology ventures. Recently, Y Combinator also expressed an interest in the industry when it issued a request for startups that included those focused on the public sector. Andreessen Horowitz has already invested $15 million in OpenGov, focused on bringing visualizations to government budgets. Other startups such as Socrata and MindMixer have also received multi-million dollar infusions to build the future of public sector IT.

Given the consistent inability for government projects to deliver on time or on budget, especially in the light of recent, major IT failures, we’ve collectively identified the problem. While much of this is due to culture, bureaucratic procurement processes and waterfall project management practices, the fundamental issue with failed government IT is that it is built on proprietary solutions.

Because of this, not only do we not have access to code, more importantly, we lose an opportunity to create an ecosystem of community and collaboration that sustains itself. To put it in context of the latest civic meme, today’s government technology is built for, not with.

The early trend we’re seeing in government technology venture investments is that the focus is still on the proprietary. While this will have incremental benefits and provide short-term excitement with each new launch, they don’t address the bigger issue every government faces in harnessing control over their IT systems.

They’re locked down and locked in.

The argument you often hear when discussing open source with proprietary government technology startup entrepreneurs is that businesses need some form of competitive advantage to build a product and develop a customer base with enough runway to sustain itself longer term. While this makes sense in a commercial market, it addresses the needs not of government, but that of the entrepreneur. The technology may provide a cutting-edge, cloud-based, big data, mobile or social solution worthy of a press release or mention in the trades, but what is it doing to really change the IT conundrum we can’t seem to procure our way out of?

This isn’t to say these new technologies don’t have merit or their builders don’t have good intention. Indeed, some do, however, there’s a classic innovation wall proprietary government IT software hits when it has reached a certain level of customer acquisition and no longer needs to compete. Oakland’s recent insistence that Granicus open up its application programming interface is exhibit A on what happens when a vendor corners a government market: technology stagnation trumps innovation. Without open systems or modularity, government is safely locked in.

We frequently hear the vending machine analogy applied to government. Today, the vending machine is the proprietary vendor machine, and government is the one doing the shaking.

If we’re going to double down and truly build a civic operating system anyone can plug into, and be proud of, we must invest in a strategy that sustains beyond one software solution.

We need to double down on a philosophical approach to government technology.

There’s not an overnight solution and the problem won’t be solved tomorrow, but if you’re really in this business to transform government, whether you’re an entrepreneur or investor, it’s time to double down on open.

Government can, literally, no longer afford to operate business as usual when it comes to technology. If ‘Vendor 2.0′ is simply a new class of fresh faces operating no differently than its predecessor, let’s prepare our kids for disappointment.

You’re either investing in or building tomorrow’s problem today, or you’re co-creating the future of government.

The latter might be a longer, lonelier road, but we have to stick with it because, as Bouganim says, it’s only going to get better.

Let’s double down.

What’s Ahead for Open Source in Government?

What’s Ahead for Open Source in Government?

(originally published at opensource.com.  Republished with permission.  http://opensource.com/government/13/9/trends-open-source-government-2013)

It’s a relatively quiet time for most governments around the world right now. Typically, during this time there are few new initiatives, policies, or announcements related to open source.

So, it’s a good time to consider the trends of the first half of the year and ponder what the remainder of this calendar year holds.

Here are a few that come to mind.

Open Source will continue to be the ‘go to’ approach for governments around the world facing budget constraints amid growing demand for innovative services and citizen engagement.

I speak regularly about the trends in government open source and one of my consistent themes is that the ‘wind is behind’ the take up of open source for government missions.

More than 40 governments, by my conservative count, have policies that create a positive environment for open source use.

These policies are important to level the playing field: on the one hand highlighting the benefits of open source to governments (saying ‘it’s ok to use it’) as well as providing meaningful answers to commonly asked questions by government IT professionals.

The more potent driver toward open source software utilization, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is the fundamental shift in IT architecture, away from coupled hardware, software, and data to more modularity, reuse, and a central focus on interoperability—all of which is enhanced by tigher government IT budgets and the goal of avoiding vendor lock-in.

More recently, open source use has grown with the rise of high profile ‘digital agendas’. As a means of enhancing civic engagement, governments are using community-powered innovation to build open data and digital services platforms that are almost entirely built on open software and applications. We may truly be on the verge of the ‘citizen CIO’.

Increasingly, governments are wrestling with the ‘how tos’ of open source choices; not ‘whether’ to use it.

As broader acceptance of open source grows, governments are seeking to understand how to grasp the broad array of open source offerings that are available.

Their challenge has grown as governments move beyond use of open source in traditional server environments. Today, the cloud, big data, and mobile—which are heavily enabled by open source—are driving IT strategies. They make the question of How? especially acute: How do I take advantage of all this innovation, while still ensuring long-term reliability and consistency with my procurement goals?

To start, it’s important to understand the differences. There are OSS products which have commercial support from firms with proven track records of service and integrity. There are also “insourced” projects where agencies share software with each other, but not with the private sector. Finally, some agencies download community (also known as “freebie”) projects without any commercial support.

If government IT professionals rely solely on ad hoc rules or seat-of-the pants judgement, this exposes government agencies to significant risk that is not, at present, properly documented or understood:

  • There are distinct risks associated with choosing a “freebie/insourced” model for use of open source software. In particular, community/freebie projects or “insourced” projects are likely to lack key security certifications, regular updates, support from third-party vendors, and interoperability with your critical applications.
  • Relying on ‘freebie/insourced’ open source software effectively means a strategy of relying on internal support for critical mission which is unknown territory and potentially expensive, given the difficulty of obtaining and retaining qualified IT and management personnel.
  • We could see a repeat of the failures and long-term costs associated with ‘government-off-the-shelf’ (GOTS) solutions. Although the projects may be, technically, commercial items as generally understood by governments, they present the same risks and economic liabilities as government-off-the-shelf software.

On-going policy discussions will continue about ensuring an ‘open’ cloud.

In a recent opensource.com post, long-time open source advocate Georg Greve writes of the ‘storm triggered in the cloud’ by recent disclosures of access by intelligence agencies (US and others).

The challenge for open source software advocates is to continue to press for ‘openness’ in the infrastructure and implementation of open source, even as the critical issues of access to information is sorted through.

It won’t be easy. Even prior to these disclosures, it was becoming clear that government initiatives on the cloud were testing the community’s ability to maintain ‘openness’ in implementation of those strategies, even where there were long-standing public commitment to open source and open standards. Some have even spoken of the prospect of a forthcoming ‘cloud war’ between Europe and the US, which would undermine even basic efforts to promote open source cloud offerings globally.

That’s my quick take at the rest of 2013. What are your thoughts?