Open source and hosted applications help agencies stretch budget dollars.
Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, made a name for himself among technologists by questioning conventional wisdom. Whether it's his indifference to the Net neutrality debate or his thesis in the book, The Long Tail, that there's profit to be made in niche markets if obscure products are given large enough distribution.
So it was little wonder Anderson stirred the pot at a Connected Government symposium during the Conference on California's Future last spring in Sacramento, Calif., when he said government could do business much more cheaply than it typically does.
"We're talking about how to introduce these [Web 2.0] technologies more cheaply without having to go through the whole procurement process, and someone told me -- this may be true in terms of the state [California] as a whole -- that there was a $5,000 limit," Anderson said. "Anything above $5,000 had to go through a [procurement] approval process. I think that's a fantastic opportunity. What can you do for $5,000? What can you do for $4,999?"
"You can start a company ...," he began.
"Not much," deadpanned California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, answering Anderson's question.
"Well, I disagree," Anderson replied. "I've started two companies for less than that, each that are doing 1 million page views a month. Open source, hosted software -- you can do an amazing amount for less than $5,000."
Anderson's provocative claim is food for thought, because as some governments like California brace for deep budget cutbacks, cost-effective projections are certainly attractive.
But is keeping costs below the procurement threshold a realistic aim?
Beware the Back End
How do you do something for next to nothing? Governments are turning more to open source software, according to Deborah Bryant, public-sector communities manager of the Open Source Lab at Oregon State University. Though she said there isn't a quantifiable way to measure the trend, the evidence is anecdotal. She cited a few examples among many:
There are other commonly used open source programs that are considered to be reliable and mature: Open Office, an office suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software; the Mozilla Firefox Web browser; the Linux Kernel operating system; GIMP, a bitmap image editor that some users claim rivals Adobe's ubiquitous Photoshop; and MySQL, an open source database.
Open source software, at first glance, appears to be a viable option to do things on the cheap: It's collaborative, constantly updated and most important -- free of charge. Or is it? Bryant said the notion is fading that open source means free.
"IT professionals have become pretty sophisticated about understanding the free [concept], and open source software has to do with flexibility from traditional licensing constraints, but not cost-free," Bryant said. "Everything -- every procurement process, every acquisition, every implementation -- has some kind of cost associated with it, whether it is proprietary or free. So there are opportunities to use this kind of software, and I think that increasingly you're seeing agencies going into this with their eyes open."
That's because though most open source software doesn't have a licensing fee associated with it, costs accrue over time related to staff training, support and maintenance. Bryant said the documentation included with some open source software is inadequate for users, which inevitably tacks on unforeseen
costs to the customer.
"No software is free," said Mark Driver, a Gartner research vice president and open source analyst. "The complexity and scale to which you are using the software for mission-critical solutions is going to, at some point, require someone dedicated to the process. Even if I get the software for free, if that same agency ends up having to support the code all themselves -- and having to have programs and becoming a software company, then they're not really saving any money. So it requires a sort of critical mass, and that really hasn't happened yet."
In simpler language, Bryant said open source is almost free on the front end, but will end up costing money later on.
The $5,000 Question
"So the big picture here is one of an academic, theoretical possibility versus execution," Driver said when posed Anderson's challenge that government do business less expensively. "Theoretically government is well organized and unique in that there is not a tremendous focus on intellectual property. You don't worry about an agency being competitive with another agency, for example. The enterprise itself is owned by the citizens anyway. So the ability to share code is very high."
Driver said one way to move toward the $5,000 target would be to practice "community sourcing," which is a relatively new term that refers to collaborative work -- in the case of state and local government, Driver applies it to similar agencies that have partnered on new software projects. If you find enough partners, the total acquisition cost could significantly lower the cost barrier to the point that software acquisition could conceivably cost less than a preset amount that kicks in a legislatively mandated procurement process.
Voilà! Your agency would be more agile and bypass the bureaucratic procurement channels. Of course, it's not nearly that simple.
The concept of spreading the costs out among agencies within states, towns and the whole United States -- or even internationally -- is mostly untested. Driver said "community source" shared software would require that business processes be identical among the collaborating states or municipalities (e.g., identical driver's license application processes in Florida and Oklahoma). Those sorts of obstacles could be politically untenable.
"I would certainly ask myself for every single piece of software in every category that I was acquiring and managing, 'Is there a suitable open source solution in this space?' It's largely measured in terms of [software's] maturity," Driver said. "Some spaces, when it comes to databases and applications, I would begin to look at open source as a viable technique there. Second, I would look and say, 'Is this a custom piece of software that we need to write ourselves? If so, is there an effort out there that we can collaborate? Or would it be worth the effort in leading this process?'"
Meanwhile, Bryant said she would never draw up a list of projects with a $5,000 cap in mind, but if that's all the money she had in the budget, she would look closely at hosted solutions with minimal licensing fees, such as Google Apps -- a Web-based suite of products that features a document manager, chat client, e-mail and storage, and calendar. Bryant, former deputy CIO of Oregon, said if she were in charge of IT operations for a small city with a business user that needed to do a survey, she would turn to SurveyMonkey -- a popular Web site for hosting customizable survey questions. "Those kinds of things, I think, are underutilized," Bryant said.
Anderson said the corporate world is effecting a change that will likely trickle down to government. "Increasingly as we're moving to more and more Web 2.0 technologies, more hosted stuff, more open source software -- very light development tools -- these things cost nothing," he said during a keynote speech at the Conference on California's Future. In Anderson's worldview, it's culturally difficult, but possible, to shift away from return-on-investment memos to a just-go-for-it attitude.
"There aren't financial risks anymore," he explained.
That's true, at least upfront, according to open source experts Bryant and Driver.