18F has long espoused the benefits of using open source technologies and, more broadly, the value of working in the open. Our open source policy that is included in all our work includes:
- Use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which is software that does not charge users a purchase or licensing fee for modifying or redistributing the source code, in our projects and contribute back to the open source community.
- Develop our work in the open.
- Publish publicly all source code created or modified by 18F, whether developed in-house by government staff or through contracts negotiated by 18F.
We wanted to hear from other government agencies about how open source has worked for them and what the future looks like across the executive branch. So, we asked a few of our partner agencies to talk about their experience.
How did open source contribute to your project?
Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy: Working in the open to get active and frequent feedback from public and government stakeholders was the perfect match for the National FOIA Portal project. Given the core purpose of the FOIA, to shed light on government activities, it was very important to us to develop the first government-wide National FOIA Portal in the most transparent and open way. Working collaboratively in the open with our diverse stakeholders, we were able to create a dynamic website that meets actual user needs.
Defense Information Systems Agency about their eApp project: It allowed the code to be looked at and tested by more and diverse organizations than would have be possible if open source was not used.
Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue: The site (revenuedata.doi.gov) is built entirely on open source technologies. Philosophically, this approach aligns with the original impetus for the site’s inception: the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Even though the site is no longer driven by the EITI initiative, the principles of transparency – emblematic in both the open data and open code that power the site – continue to inform our approach. We want the site to embody openness and transparency both in the content provided and in the way we build. For that reason, we use open source software to build the site, and we use GitHub to manage our code and workflow in the open.
How did you talk to your leadership about starting an open source project?
Defense Information Systems Agency about their eApp project: I inherited the open source project so I was not there at the start, but there had to be several discussions with leadership and cybersecurity personnel to explain the benefits and also to explain how open source helps to find vulnerabilities, not introduce new vulnerabilities.
Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy: Very early on in our evaluations on how to build the National FOIA Portal, the Department decided that it was important to use the newest technology and development approaches. We made using open source tools a priority on this project from the beginning, which naturally led us to a partnership with 18F. Once the project began, we established a monthly update with the CIO to review how the open source project was progressing.
Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue: Our leadership was supportive of open source code because it aligned with the EITI Principles and with the administration’s pledge of a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. It promotes increased transparency, greater accountability, and good governance; and builds trust.
What was easier with open source that was more challenging with past projects?
Defense Information Systems Agency about their eApp project: It was much easier tracking the progress, sharing of information about user stories, and keeping everyone on the same page. There was greater transparency from the vendor.
Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy: The biggest benefit we saw from the open source approach was the active feedback, engagement, and buy-in from our public stakeholders. We had more confidence that what would be released to production would be of value because we had solicited and considered input from a diverse stakeholder group.
Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue: It’s certainly easier to invite others to share and collaborate on open-source projects. Open-source software also lends itself to transparency, which should be a core tenet of government software, given it’s publicly owned.
Open-source technologies allow government to be less reliant on proprietary software. As a result, content published via this software – content that is effectively owned by the American people – is liberated from proprietary systems that may otherwise limit access to it. Open source allows the content to be more portable, flexible, and accessible to those who wish to access it.
What would you say to other people considering open source for their project?
The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy: OIP found that by working in the open, we were not only able to get immediate and active feedback from our stakeholders, but also it allowed other technologists to contribute to the overall success of the project. We would also encourage those who are unfamiliar with the open source process to approach it with an open mind.
Defense Information Systems Agency about their eApp project: I would say don’t be afraid of open source. It is a great way to get input on the code, find errors, vulnerabilities, share information, and build solid code.
Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue: For government projects, open source should be the default in most cases. There is a great deal of compatibility between open-source methodologies and the respective missions of government agencies, which are centered around transparency and access.
Additionally, building with open-source technologies, and building in an open venue (such as GitHub), is likely to make the final product better. By using open software and working in the open, you remove barriers to critical evaluation and participation from others. Inviting critique from others can be uncomfortable, but it increases the likelihood that the final product is more effective at meeting the needs of multiple stakeholders inside and outside government.
Would you work on another open source project?
Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue: Our goal is to work in the open and provide avenues for collaboration and participation from the public, so open-source is our default. So long as we can meet the needs of our target audience with an open-source solution, that is the direction we will go.
Defense Information Systems Agency about their eApp project: Yes, the positive aspects of open source outweigh any of the negatives.
Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy: FOIA.gov still remains in the open, and we plan to continue to develop and enhance the National FOIA Portal by working in the open going forward.
Using open source code and working in the open isn’t something just 18F or GSA are doing. Other agencies are working this way too; you can find an inventory of agencies and their open source code on code.gov. Whether it’s through an engagement with us or simply adapting our Open Source Policy for your agency, we hope you consider open source technologies for your next project, and the Technology Transformation Services are here to help.