Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act: Embrace Open Source !

January 21, 2013

Senator Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, through a bi-partisan effort, is introducing a Bill in Congress that will reform how the Federal government manages IT infrastructure, and in particular, how it takes advantage of Open Source software.

The introduction to the Bill:

Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act


The federal government currently spends $81 billion each year on information technology, yet its use and deployment of IT is full of duplication and failure. At a time when we are facing record deficits and our national debt has exceeded GDP, it has never been more important for government IT acquisition to maximize the American taxpayer’s return on investment, reduce operational risk and provide value to citizens. Yet, because of the antiquated way the government defines its requirements and acquires IT, we are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year on failed programs.


The Draft of the Bill is here in PDF format.

Let’s highlight some interesting passages:

In page 46:


(a) PURPOSE.—The purpose of this section is to promote the use and collaborative development of open source software within the Federal government.


It is great to see in the section below, that the Federal Government will not simply be “consuming” Open Source software, or seeing Open Source software as a “Product” to be acquired, but actually engaging in “Collaborative Development”. This reveals a new and enlightened understanding of the operational principles of Open Source and its value:

 (c) GUIDANCE.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director, in consultation with the Chief Information Officers Council  shall issue guidance for the use and collaborative development of open source software within the Federal government.


In the specific topic of clarifying the rules for acquisition of software by the Federal government the Bill draft says

…clarify that the preference for commercial items in section 3307 of title 41, United States Code, includes all open source software that meets the definition of commercial item in section 103 of title 40, United State Code, including all such software that is used for non-Government purposes and is licensed to the public.


This is an important point, that has been repeatedly made by David WheelerOpen Source software is a Commercial Item, and must be considered during the process of evaluating software for acquisition by the Federal agencies. Therefore, the guidelines to be developed by CIO’s includes:

(2) Guidance regarding the conduct of market research to ensure the inclusion of open source software.

and the corresponding training and education of acquisition officers on the matter:

(3) Guidance to establish a program to educate the acquisition workforce by providing information to identify and counter misconceptions about open source software and to keep such information updated.

This is an excellent point, since we have often seen that the hurdles to the consideration of open source software are related to lack of exposure and experience on the part of program officers and contracting officers, with the concepts of open source software.


One particular topic of common confusion relates to lack of understanding of Copyright and Licensing, as well as the open collaborative practices of open source. The Bill is requiring to develop guidelines there too:

(4) Guidance to define Government-wide standards for security, redistribution, indemnity, and copyright in the acquisition, use, release, and collaborative development of open source software.


Along the lines of understanding that software is not a product, but a service delivery platform, the Bill draft is also considering the issue of contracting for support and maintenance of software packages:

(6) Guidance to establish standard service level agreements for maintenance and support for open source software products widely adopted by the Government, as well as the development of Government-wide agreements that contain standard and widely applicable contract provisions for ongoing maintenance and development of open source software.

Finally, the Bill includes a provision for reporting on how the guidelines can be improved over time

(e) REPORT TO CONGRESS.—Not later than 2 years after the issuance of the guidance required by subsection (b), the Comptroller General of the United States shall submit to the relevant congressional committees a report containing—

(1) an assessment of the effectiveness of the guidance;
(2) an identification of barriers to widespread use by the Federal Government of open source software; and
(3) such legislative recommendations as the Comptroller General considers appropriate to further the purposes of this section.

The Bill displays an outstanding level of understanding of the nature of open source software and seems to truly position the Federal Government to take advantage of the efficiencies and high quality of open source software, that many in the private industry have been enjoying for decades.

Of course, the lobbying body of the software for licensing industry (that accounts for only 15% of the True Software Industry), is objecting the explicit mention of the “Open Source” term in the Bill.

Opposition by the BSA, shows that this is indeed a Good Bill for the Public, and that it is eroding the Monopolies that a small minority of software companies hold on the Federal Government, in a lock-down situation that prevents the public from taking advantage of natural competition in a Free Market economy.


Some items in the Bill are inspired by the successful embrace of efficiency and modernization at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In particular, the fact that the VA is the only Federal Agency where the CIO has budget decision authority, and through it, actually has the capacity to drive the efficiency of IT at the same time that it modernizes its infrastructure.


Senator Issa commented:

“We’re not trying to exactly match what open source is in the private sector, because government is different. But we believe we can be collaborative to the benefit of the private sector and the public sector.”

1 comment to Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act: Embrace Open Source !

  1. If this gets through it will be a great achievement. Let’s hope that, in the event it gets through, other countries, in particular Australia, will follow suit. Too many resources are wasted in buying specialised software from small companies and when these companies later go broke, there is no recourse for maintenance and further improvements, often there are also licensing and patent issues preventing further development.

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