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Lowering the risk of experimentation with open source code

In September, Singapore launched the govBuy Marketplace, adapted from the Technology Transformation Service’s (TTS) Micro-Purchase Marketplace. Both sites are an auction platform designed to connect government teams to small businesses ready to solve small technical problems using open source code. The code that powers both platforms is also open source.

Often when other governments reuse or adapt one of our projects, we set up a call with them to hear their story. We recently talked with Singapore’s Government Digital Services team and learned a number of interesting things, including their desire to run design auctions, that they’ve faced similar barriers to convincing offices to use open source code, and that Singapore’s micro-purchase threshold is almost exactly the same as the U.S.

The most interesting tidbit was how 18F’s use of open source code to build the Micro-Purchase Marketplace allowed Singapore to lower the risk of experimentation. Because 18F works in the open, Singapore was able to copy our code, remove pieces they didn’t need, tweak it to fit their specific requirements, and quickly launch their own marketplace. (And talking about the project in the open helped them discover this even existed.) This greatly reduced the staff time required to set up the marketplace and allowed the Singapore team to focus on solving problems specific to them instead of resolving the same issues the TTS team encountered.

It has also allowed them to push their counterparts towards using more open source code in their work.

“We start small and take a bit of risk. Then we show success stories and how it’s beneficial,” said Sheng Hau Chai, of the Singapore Government Digital Service. “We do it for our own needs first and then convince others later on with success stories.”

Running an experiment in government is often difficult because the system is designed to avoid risk. But if we’re going to find a better way to provide services to the public, we need to find ways to experiment, take risks, and hone in on what works best.

Not every experiment is going to work, and not every solution is right for every government agency. Open source code allows agencies to investigate a solution before committing, quickly stand up their own version to see if it’s a worthy investment, and receive support from the community as they work.

If you want to get started, here are 34 projects you can reuse (and seven good ones for state and local governments), our open source policy, and our guide to making open source projects friendly for contributors. Read the Federal Source Code Policy for more guidance and browse the new code.gov for open source inspiration from around the federal government.

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