January 2, 2008 By Larry J. Singer
Do you remember when some technical wave swept over enterprise IT? A vendor or its representative would whisper to a legislator that this was good stuff. Sometimes there was even someone in the legislature with sufficient IT background to get excited.
Those were the good old days. Now that IT trends appear in every magazine and newspaper's business section, we have so much help that we must respond to early trends with policy and implementation plans. Open source, open standards and Web 2.0 are the latest firestorms to attract the attention of government IT helpers.
If you don't want to be a Luddite, you need a plan in each area. But as someone who's been around the block, my advice is to delay wholesale restructuring. As one never knows how these things will play out. Let's look at the prudent, but interested, path for each.
Open source. The problem here is that your overseers/helpers still equate open source with free. The huge adoption of Linux, Firefox and Open Office exemplify open source projects that have yielded some good "free" products that are widely used and secure.
These open source projects should be evaluated and tested according to the same processes one uses to procure commercial software - of course, their true cost as a real part of the consideration, along with functional fit, supportability, liability and other issues fully considered. In the case of the operating system and productivity suite migration, costs and issues must be considered along with procurement issues. Your operations management team will be eager to highlight those issues, since they'll have to suffer the most with such a huge choice. Seek funding for a pilot so all costs, including maintenance and scale, can be understood.
The other, more interesting opportunity has to do with open source as a process for application development. Turning government strategic projects into open source efforts that get the support of civic-minded hackers and career-focused young professionals governmentwide can reduce costs and improve delivery time and quality if well managed. When used across jurisdictions, open source is a great way to foster collaboration.
Open standards. Our helpers are right at home in this discussion. Standards are inherently political. The idea of widely adopted open standards is nirvana. Ever since Computer Associates, HP, DEC and Amdahl all challenged IBM's proprietary standards in the dark ages, and with the advent of Windows on PCs, standards have been set by the market. Volume adoption is equal to a standard. The problem with this approach is the huge tax in the form of higher prices when a vendor-provided industry standard monopolizes the market.
There are no true altruists in the standards game.
Every urge government has is to extract the setting of standards from the market and establish them for the common good, as monopolies are inherently anticompetitive. The problem is that in fast-changing, evolving spaces - like IT - bureaucratic or communal attempts at setting standards are hopelessly slow.
So when a standard emerges that's been adopted sufficiently to assure compatibility with your environment, you must enlist political sponsorship to support it.
Never confuse this with a technical decision; this is of the political part of a public CIO's job.
Finally today's mega-topic: Web 2.0. It makes both previous discussions moot. If you use an online set of applications, drawn from the Web, supported by others, run on shared server farms, such as Google Documents, who cares what their source is, as long as they're interoperable with common commercial packages? The need for standards is eliminated if someone else absorbs all costs associated with maintaining interfaces. Their reach and clout bring about market standards in the form of required application program interfaces.
This is the true movement that requires both your technical acumen and political wiles. This is a total disruption of every operational concept that has governed enterprise IT. Learn about this, study it. Do so alongside the interested legislator and the governor's policy wonks. How you lead on this emerging opportunity will matter.
Larry J. Singer is a consultant, and was senior vice president of Sun Microsystems, CIO of Georgia, chairman and CEO of Public Interest Breakthroughs Inc., a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and an executive director at Texas Instruments.
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