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Oracle's Federal IT Modernization Comments Draw Fire from Tech Industry

A company leader railed against open source coding, custom software, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service in comments to a White House council.

If one finds themselves in a discussion about how to fix government IT, the conversation begins with the assumption that something is wrong with it.

So when the White House’s American Technology Council (ATC) asked the public for how to modernize federal IT and move past practices that have stood in the way, one of the largest, most entrenched government IT vendors responded with a bit of acid.

Oracle, well known for its government work and its database and enterprise resource planning software, drew fire from some influential voices in the world of public tech recently when it submitted its comments to the ATC.

“We respectfully suggest the government has not gone far enough in articulating a plan that will result in significant change and instead seems to be driving the government in the opposite direction,” Oracle Senior Vice President Kenneth Glueck wrote. “Many of the report’s recommendations and current modernization efforts seem out of sync with the best technology practices deployed in a Fortune 50 company today.”

Glueck went on to say that open sourcing is an unsafe, outdated and unsustainable approach to setting up government systems, that the government should be pursuing commercial-off-the-shelf software instead of custom coding, and that agencies should be focusing on program management and not on developing technological expertise.

Mainly, he called on the federal government to foster competition the traditional way — through competitive bidding.

“The (government’s) initiatives to recruit engineers from private vendors has resulted in the predictable outcome of creating favoritism for those vendors’ solutions, and seems to replace presumed technical expertise with the more complex task of procuring, implementing, maintaining, and securing systems over the long term,” Glueck wrote.

He also specifically called out 18F and the U.S. Digital Service for foisting “false narratives” and damaging practices, such as an emphasis on open source code and custom development, on the rest of the federal government.

A few on the project’s GitHub repository praised the Oracle submission, such as John Weiler of the IT Acquisition Advisory Council.

“The entire COTS industry has been under ‘anti-commercial’ attack from efforts established under the Obama administration,” he wrote in a comment.

Glueck’s comments made their way to Mike Masnick’s TechDirt blog, where he called Glueck’s submission “curmudgeonly” and suggested the company is fighting against open sourcing because it cuts against Oracle’s proprietary tech-dependent bottom line.

“Looking at historical IT implementations pre-USDS and 18F, and you see example after example of it being the outsourced, private, large government contractor companies whose work results in massive unplanned maintenance costs,” Masnick wrote. “Seriously, this entire filing by Oracle is one giant false narrative of people living in denial about how the world works these days.”

Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, published her own blog calling the company out for clinging to a status quo that has resulted in giant IT implementation failures, including Oracle’s own debacle setting up Oregon’s health-care marketplace. She took particular issue with Glueck’s thoughts on government IT hiring.

“If Oracle is coming out strong against in-house technology talent, it’s simply because so many more talented technologists with higher expectations for the technology they build or buy are coming into government, many of them through Code for America’s fellowship program or talent initiative, and ending in up places like city halls, 18F and USDS,” Pahlka wrote. “They’re having a positive impact there on behalf of taxpayers and everyone who needs to interact with government, and Oracle doesn’t like it.”

Glueck’s words were particularly striking for Luke Fretwell, who is the chief executive for a government-serving company built on open-source software: ProudCity.

“When taxpayers are paying the government money, everybody should have access to the results, and in this case it’s code,” Fretwell said.

He said Glueck was wrong about where the costs in government are coming from, too. Glueck pinned it on labor costs tied to custom code and long-tail maintenance. Fretwell put it on companies like Oracle selling proprietary technology that locks public-sector workers into dependence.

For example, he said, cities build employee teams around those proprietary solutions. In theory, they could always use the competitive bidding process to find another vendor. But in practice, doing so would mean retraining those employees, reassigning them new roles and generally disrupting the agency’s workflows.

Not to mention the expense of setting up a whole new system.

“It could be a few million to tens of millions if you’re rebuilding it,” he said. “That’s the reality, government doesn’t have the luxury of continuously investing in large-scale projects, so they just get sucked into maintaining a really bad one.”

Here are some others in the tech industry who took to Twitter in opposition to Oracle’s comments:

From Oregon v. Oracle. This is their "off the shelf" software that is so superior to "custom software using OSS" — Yehuda Katz (@wycats) Oct. 4, 2017
Very sad to see Oracle spreading FUD about @TheASF like this. They know better; they are trying to get Trump's business though. — Simon Phipps (@webmink) Oct. 4, 2017
There are grains of truth in what @Oracle says sometimes, but that’s lost in all their BS (and bad proprietary tech) — Seamus Kraft (@seamuskraft) Oct. 4, 2017
Oracle: 1) got paid by govt to develop code. 2) Marked it proprietary. 3) Held govt hostage for decades 4) now say this is capitalism. — Randy Hart (@Randy22401) Oct. 10, 2017
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.