Earlier today I had quite an interesting conversation with clients in a Tax & Revenues Department who were looking for whether they should regulate how their developers contribute back into open source communities.
At the end of the conversation one client asked me whether we had any research showing if using open source has a positive return on a government agency’s brand. My first reaction was that brand is mostly impacted by how well an agency fulfils its mission: in their case it is certainly a combination of taxpayer service level (such as easiness of filing, timeliness of reimbursement), fraud detection and prevention, overall operational efficiency and so forth. Software does play a key role in each of these areas, but it is unlikely people would care much about specific solutions or architectural choices. On other hand, certain constituencies do care more about how governments get things done and being able to prove the value of using open source more or less extensively certainly helps, although not much more than proving the value of proprietary solutions.
In jurisdictions where there is a predisposition to encourage the deployment of open source for all sorts of reason (vendor independence, lower cost of procurement, greater control, positive impact on local economic development, and so forth), there is certainly a more favorable attitude. However I would argue that an agency always has to be able to articulate (if not demonstrate) the value of whichever software sourcing option in terms that clearly relate to its own business.
A good example is indeed the case for contributing back into open source communities. If those communities support application software that is specific to the mission of an agency (such as tax management in this case), sharing risks with others and leveraging each other resources does make sense and suggests a wise use of public money. On the other hand, contributing back into a community supporting a horizontal middleware solution – even if very helpful from an agency’s perspective – may be interpreted like something that will ultimately benefit whichever vendor does or may sell a commercial version of that solution, or in any case users that may be – in their majority – in other jurisdictions.
The bottom line is that any open source adoption and related behavior in a government agency should be exclusively related to the value that it brings to the organization. Let politicians, lobbyists and journalists build their interpretations: what really matters for IT professionals is to make sure they can demonstrate that their choices are the best for what their organization is supposed to achieve. If those choices also help the common good, so much better, but do not get too much concerned with that.