US.gov to open-source made-to-order software, allow contributions

Three-year code pilot to cut costs, lock-in

United States chief information officer Tony Scott and chief acquisition officer Anne E Rung have issued a joint memo decreeing that henceforth all government agencies need to consider open-sourcing any bespoke software they commission.

The memo (PDF), issued on Monday, notes some code-sharing across government but says it is not done “in a consistent manner”.

“In some cases, agencies may even have difficulty establishing that the software was produced in the performance of a Federal Government contract,” the memo continues, which can lead to “duplicative acquisitions for substantially similar code and an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars”.

The policy therefore implements a three-year pilot during which US government agencies will be required to open source a fifth of their bespoke code. Security agencies are exempt from the policy.

The policy also calls for any bespoke development effort to “acquire and enforce rights sufficient to enable Government-wide reuse of custom-developed code.” There's also a requirement to keep an up-to-date inventory of code and to lodge open source code at code.gov.

Elsewhere the policy suggests that when sharing code, agencies should engage with existing communities whenever possible, rather than trying to create their own. Which sounds like a shout-out to whoever provisions storage at GitHub, if nothing else. There's even a section 5.2.F in which agencies are encouraged to ready themselves for code contributions from third parties within and without government, creating the potential for citizen coders to help build government apps.

The memo also insists that whenever agencies need new software they must consider “whether to use an existing Federal software solution or to acquire or develop a new software solution.” Agencies must also consider whether it is possible to get what they need by mixing government and commercial code.

Similar policies have sprouted around the world, often accompanied by the concept of a government app store, so the US isn't out on its own here. The sheer size of the US government, however, means the concept has just levelled up.

The memo's authors hopes agencies do too: the 20 per cent target is suggested as a minimum and “agencies are strongly encouraged to release as much custom-developed code as possible to further the Federal Government's commitment to transparency, participation, and collaboration.” ®

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