New Open Source Policies from the U.S. Government

October 2, 2014

The landscape of open-source software within the federal government has always been a difficult back and forth, with some agencies and contractors embracing it, while others either avoid it like the plague or just simply do not care one way or the other.  During the past few months, however, the White House has started to push several policies down from the very top, which is great news for open science.

U.S. Digital Services Playbook

The "U.S. Digital Services Playbook" is essentially a set of guidelines for software, services, and data funded by the U.S. government.  According to the document's github project, the U.S. Digital Services Playbook identifies a series of “plays” drawn from successful best practices from the private sector and government that, if followed together, will help the government build effective digital services. The plays outline an approach to delivering services that increases the ability of agencies to be flexible and iterative. Most importantly, the plays allow agencies to focus on the needs of the people that use their services.

The real icing on the cake for open science is Play #13: Default to Open, which states: "If the code base has not been released under an open source license, explain why." In other words, it asks contractors to justify why they have not made their government-funded work open source.  While we've seen this initiative before with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it is now becoming a government-wide initiative instead of one restricted to a single agency. 

The TechFAR Handbook

The TechFAR Handbook highlights flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that can help agencies implement “plays” from the Playbook using acquisition support. In particular, the handbook focuses on how to use contractors to support an iterative, customer-driven software development process.

The TechFAR is a great accompaniment to Play #13, since much of the difficulty some groups face with providing open-source solutions is on the contractual side, given the myriad of government regulations for acquisitions.

Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America

The Open Government Partnership, as part of the "Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America," contains new initiatives that can benefit open science. While there are four main initiatives, the second, “Deliver Government Services More Effectively Through Information Technology,” is of particular interest. 

Two points from the second initiative deserve a special highlight.

1.) Build digital services in the open. Much of the open source work we have seen from the government has been in the form of periodic "code drops." While code drops provide access to source code, they are a far cry from embracing open science, as they eliminate all of the added benefits gained through an open source community. For example, developer community engagement and bug fixes from places you never even imagined just cannot materialize under the "code drop" model. By developing services in the open, there is a chance to build open source communities around them and, in turn, reap the associated technical and financial benefits.

2.) Adopt an open source software policy. Using and contributing back to open source software can fuel innovation, lower costs, and benefit the public. No later than December 31, 2015, the Administration will work through the Federal agencies to develop an open-source software policy that, together with the Digital Services Playbook, will support improved access to custom software code developed for the Federal government.

This is perhaps the most significant point, as it fosters the adoption of a government-wide open-source software policy. The intent seems to be quite clear, at least in regards to open source: Taxpayer funded software should be actively developed in the open.  However, the devil is always in the details of how these various policies and initiatives are put into action, which will be interesting to watch play out over the next year.

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