Digital Experience ‘Musts’: Why Open Source Matters to Government

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Why OSS Matters to Government

There are clear reasons why governments are putting increased attention on open source solutions.

No Lock-in
With OSS, governments maintain complete control of their applications and data. They are not locked into proprietary formats, feature sets, integrations, roadmaps or agendas of a particular proprietary vendor. OSS solutions can be extended, customized, and maintained using common standards and technologies.

Going down the road with a single vertically integrated technology stack from a commercial vendor may seem like a great idea upfront. It may demo well, or have the name of a huge corporation behind it. The vendor may tell you that you don’t need anything else, because all the features are included in their own proprietary, fully integrated set of applications.

After the contract is signed however, it may be difficult to find skilled resources able to support the solution. You may find that a “one size fits all” stack doesn’t fit your organization as well as you thought, and because you have no ability to customize or change the solution you are dependant on the vendor and can’t get services out to your citizens quickly enough. And of course, you’re obligated to pay expensive licenses whether or not you use all components of the solution.

OSS is free. Of course, to be successful with open source technologies, you’ll often need a good vendor support system, and that has associated costs, but you’re not actually paying for the technology itself, and you’re locked into anything, either. At Acquia we like to think of our professional services as training wheels for customers. We’ll help you be successful, but our goal is to empower you to help yourselves over the long term.

Because the source code of OSS is available for anyone to test or examine, vulnerabilities in OSS are found more quickly, and are able to be addressed immediately. OSS facilitates code reviews, static code analysis, and compliance with common standards. Some OSS projects get more security attention than others, and Drupal has been widely recognized as having an excellent security team and track record.

It’s important to note that just because a particular OSS project is secure, without proper management of that system’s boundaries (platform, infrastructure, and apis), security can be easily compromised. Acquia’s Digital Cloud platform is specifically designed to deliver Drupal experiences securely.

Governments can be free to innovate at the pace of change, not at the pace of a vendor’s release schedule. There is no waiting for a vendor or an expensive contractor – government has the control with OSS to deliver services and content to citizens right when they need it.

Tony Scott, the US Federal CIO, talks about the primary value of cloud and open source as faster time to market, not just cost savings.

Speed to market. Speed to solution. Speed to meet the needs of whatever our citizens need,” Scott said. “We’ve got to draw the line, and say we’re going to do everything we can to get faster and faster and FASTER to be competitive in the global economy.

With OSS, the government can build something out of a set of reusable components, which have a proven track record of security and scalability, and they can do so on their own timeline. They can leverage the work of the larger open source community for best practices, configurations, and contributed code.

Drupal is architected for reuse with a collection of modular components that you can put together in different combinations in order to solve a particular business problem. Drupal currently has over 35,000 contributed projects available ranging from integrations with CRM and email marketing tools to FISMA compliant password policy templates to responsive “skins” known as themes. These reusable components help governments build upon the work of others and not waste resources re-implementing functionality that already is available.

Alignment with Civic Values
Open source software embodies the values of democracy, transparency, diversity and freedom. Many government organizations have contributed open source software to the community, sharing their innovations for others to benefit from.

Open Data

With the Open Government Initiative of 2009, Obama directed US government organizations to publish open and machine readable data as the new default. The executive order states that making information about government operations more readily available and useful is core to the promise of a more efficient and transparent government.

A great example of this is, an open data solution recently deployed by HHS. It tells stories about health data, and allows a citizen to download and interface with those data sets, as well as build their own apps. is powered by Acquia, NuCivic, and DKAN (a Drupal distribution focused on open data).

The US Census Bureau is another good example. They’ve amassed a great deal of data over the years, which they’ve exposed to citizens who use it for innovative things, like building mobile apps. One particular app, Dwellr, allows you to find your ideal place to live. If you’re wondering “where should I move?”, the app uses Census data to spit out recommendations about where you might be happiest living in the country.

Parting Thoughts – Don’t Go it Alone

Government agencies considering a move to open technologies, or looking to maximize their existing open technology investment, need to identify a trusted partner who has experience with enterprise government scale implementations, and a history of working with open technology. Whether you partner with a third-party vendor team, or develop in-house, you want to make sure that the team you’re working with has the skills and resources needed to excel with an open source execution, and if they don’t have those resources immediately available, that they can work with a vendor like Acquia to help get them up to speed.

Starting right from the beginning with a strong discovery and architecture is absolutely critical, because with open technologies, there’s no prescriptive method that will dictate step one, step two, and so on for building the right solution for you. Open technologies are flexible and modular, which is what makes them so powerful and appealing from a technology perspective, but you’ve got to have the team behind you to drive the change.

In the next post in this series on the New Digital Experience Government, I’ll explore Must #3: Personalization.

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