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The government’s role in open source

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Development, Open source

What is open source and why do I believe the government should become one of the biggest open source contributors?

What is open source?

Open source is a licensing model for computer software. The source code is available to everyone and they can change and redistribute it for free.

In the past the government had concerns over the security of an open code base. It also wasn't confident about how it could support open source software.

What are the benefits?

Why do organisations make high quality open source software available for free?

Development teams are usually quite small, but you’ll gain an army of new contributors if your software is successful. They can help identify bugs as well as provide support with fixes and new features.

Tim Gent delivering a speech about open source in government
Tim Gent delivering a speech about open source in government

Progress in government

The government’s IT strategy in 2011 set out a strong case for open source, encouraging departments to make use of the technology.

Later that year CESG, the government security agency, endorsed open source software. It stated it was no less secure than software owned by an individual or a company (also known as proprietary software).

Where we are today

Today we use a lot of open source software in government projects. We mostly code in the open so we’re transparent with the software we develop. This gives us opportunities to re-use the code. For example, if you look at the New Zealand government’s website you’ll see it looks like GOV.UK.

Yet we’re missing out on some of the advantages of open source. Coding in the open makes it easy for people to borrow pieces of our code, but it doesn't make it easy for them to contribute.

There are some exceptions. GDS is developing both a payments service and a notifications service that are open source and have scope for re-use by others.

At the Home Office we’re working in open source on a project which aims to help people develop accessible forms. We also hope to open source our hosting platform.

Can the government be a major contributor to open source?

Does the government have the people to do this? I would say yes - Google has around 57,000 employees and has open sourced around 20 million lines of code. The UK’s Civil Service is around 9 times the size of Google and that doesn’t include other government bodies.

Some would say that Google can open source this amount of code because it’s a technology company. But ultimately both Google and the government want the same thing – to create great services for their users.

Government has a big advantage over private companies when it comes to open sourcing software - it’s not trying to make money. As a result, I think it can be much more ambitious with how much it uses open source.

What could we contribute?

Communicating with citizens is critical to the government and there’s a lot more we need to do. For example, if I have a question about tax I want to be able to ask it online and get an instant response. We’re getting closer to this becoming a reality because the technology already exists - and it’s open source. The government needs to take advantage of these developments and look to contribute back.

What next?

We’re already going through a major digital transformation, so let’s make it open source. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds though because there’s a cost to open sourcing. We need time and money to maintain open source projects and we need to be clear how we’ll support them.

It also needs people who understand how to achieve re-use, so that we’re making the right open source components. Too often re-usable systems become less so as teams bundle more features into the same codebase. Instead, they need splitting into smaller, more flexible components.

We also need to shout about what we’re doing to get the community involved and encourage others to do the same. We want to share each other’s work so that we can continue to benefit from the already excellent open source community.

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