Digital Native Government Agency Embraces The Power Of Open Source

from the open-source-for-open-government dept

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a young federal agency (founded in July 2011), and as such has a history of getting it when it comes to the digital world. They launched by taking online suggestions, they run an active blog, and now they’ve revealed their internal software policy and its dedication to open source, both as a user and a contributor (emphasis in the original):

We agree, and the first section of our source code policy is unequivocal: We use open-source software, and we do so because it helps us fulfill our mission.

Open-source software works because it enables people from around the world to share their contributions with each other. The CFPB has benefited tremendously from other people’s efforts, so it’s only right that we give back to the community by sharing our work with others.

This brings us to the second part of our policy: When we build our own software or contract with a third party to build it for us, we will share the code with the public at no charge. Exceptions will be made when source code exposes sensitive details that would put the Bureau at risk for security breaches; but we believe that, in general, hiding source code does not make the software safer.

We’re sharing our code for a few reasons:

  • First, it is the right thing to do: the Bureau will use public dollars to create the source code, so the public should have access to that creation.
  • Second, it gives the public a window into how a government agency conducts its business. Our job is to protect consumers and to regulate financial institutions, and every citizen deserves to know exactly how we perform those missions.
  • Third, code sharing makes our products better. By letting the development community propose modifications , our software will become more stable, more secure, and more powerful with less time and expense from our team. Sharing our code positions us to maintain a technological pace that would otherwise be impossible for a government agency.

The CFPB is serious about building great technology. This policy will not necessarily make that an easy job, but it will make the goal achievable.

While governments around the world have been moving to embrace open source for a long time, adoption has been pretty slow in the U.S., though it is steadily growing as more federal agencies revise their guidelines and regulations, and some states pass laws requiring the consideration of open source options. But as a new agency that actively pursues the opportunities presented by technology, the CFPB is ahead of the curve. TechCrunch’s Scott Merrill got additional details, like the fact that they are trying to lead by example:

I asked Willey what kind of advocacy — if any — the CFPB was doing (or planning to do) for open source software within the government. He shared that they’re using GitHub Enterprise internally, and have fielded a number of questions from other agencies about how they procured that and set it up. “It’s hard for us to have these conversations with other agencies without implicitly advocating an open source philosophy,” Willey told me. “So instead of trying to sell open source to other agencies on principle, we’re finding that it’s a lot easier to prove the value of open source software by showing our colleagues the great results it has gotten us.”

I was curious whether the CFPB’s policy is the natural result of more digital natives taking government jobs. According to Willey, it was “simply the byproduct of building a government organization from scratch in the information age: we are able to craft our technology philosophy with a modern perspective.”

It’s good to see people in government placing an emphasis on staying at the forefront of technology, especially in terms of open source. The entire philosophy of open source is perfectly matched to the ideals of a transparent, accountable government that serves and belongs to its citizens, and hopefully the CFPB will lead more agencies in that direction.

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Comments on “Digital Native Government Agency Embraces The Power Of Open Source”

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Chris Maresca (profile) says:

They are not the only ones...

I worked on major open source projects at DoC and DHHS in the mid ’90s and built an open source strategy for 3 cabinet level agencies (Housing, Labor & USDA) in the early 2000’s. In addition, I was part of a team that funded and pushed through standards certification of a number of open source projects, all of which were paid for by DoD in the mid-2000’s.

Open source is VERY widespread in the US government (and in the three other national governments I advised), it’s just not widely known as there isn’t a large PR budget to make everyone aware every time it is used.

Just because no one knows about it doesn’t mean open source use in the US Government is not widespread. In fact, I would guess that, based on my experience working with a number of foreign governments, the US government has among the longest, deepest and widest usage of open source, in some cases dating back 30 years or more. Not only that, but open source is often used and favored in the most sensitive environments.

Finally, the procurement process is end-result driven, not many people actually care how the result is achieved as long as it meets the requirements. And attempts to dictate technology have generally been disastrous. Open source can be a good solution, mostly because it provides better operational flexibility and better margins for the contractor. Sometimes (like in a US Navy project I worked on in 2002) the lower cost results in much wider technology deployment.


Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: They are not the only ones...

Very interesting… that’s not a side of things that gets discussed a lot – mostly you read about people encouraging the government to adopt more open source.

I guess part of the difference there is in the type of software people are talking about – like, the sort of intensive agency projects you describe are working with open source, but an office full of government secretaries is generally on Windows & Office. CFPB is of the former breed – and it’s interesting to learn that’s been going on since the 90s. I might hit you up for more info… 🙂

Chris Maresca (profile) says:

Re: Re: They are not the only ones...

For most organizations, the cost of re-training people to use open source desktops is far higher than the cost of paying for MSFT or whatever they already know (c.f. WordPerfect back in the day). Therefore the only places that open source really gets used is in backoffice systems that geeks maintain or in specialized areas (engineering, communications, etc).

Plus, the reality is that open source has not produced a complete end-to-end replacement for MSFT’s stack. There are still a lot of holes which make it impossible to realistically deploy at scale. The same is also true of OSX, so it’s not just an open source problem.

That’s why you never see open source in offices, but offices are a fraction of computing systems in use. Even so, CFPB is not the first to go this route, parts of the military switched to open source desktops more than 10 years ago…


Michael S Collins (profile) says:

How are they affected by patents?

This makes me wonder: since every piece of software written today infringes on numerous patents, is a federal agency exempt? If the software they release to the public infringes patents held by trolls could the CFPB be sued in a US court? Furthermore, if the government is exempt, what about people who use the software?


Anonymous Coward says:

Generally the CFPB is a useless agency that will not do anything to help consumers.
Until “To Big To Fail” is destroyed, and the idea of risk being public but reward private nothing will change.
GM made bad choices, but it was to big to fail. It got public taxpayer money that will never be repaid.
I will buy Fords from now on.

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