US House Opens Up to Open Source

Providers of open source software recently found another market: the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. That market easily will grow to many thousands of potential open source users when the staffs of each representative, as well as the staffs of various House committees, are added to the total.

Three advocacy organizations — the Sunlight Foundation, the Congressional Data Coalition, and the OpenGov Foundation — last month jointly announced that certain procurement restrictions that had constrained the use of open source technology in the House had been clarified.

As a result, members, committees, and staff now can use official resources to procure open source software, to participate in open source software communities, and to contribute software code developed with taxpayer dollars to the public, under an open source license.

House members and staff now have a choice. They can opt for proprietary and closed technology, or choose open source solutions that are restriction-free, reusable, and frequently more cost-effective, the groups said.

“Open source software presents many exciting opportunities for members of Congress to more effectively represent and interact with their constituents,” said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.

“By taking advantage of the newest technology and collaborating with the open source community, we can improve everything from the accessibility of congressional websites to the efficiency of business on the House floor,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Polis is one of a handful of representatives who supported the move for House adoption of the technology.

Key Committees in the Mix

The concentrated effort behind the House open source adoption initiative began last fall, when the advocacy groups petitioned the House to adopt rule changes that would permit the use and publication of open source software.

Late last year it gained more support from various House members. The House Ethics Committee became involved to address concerns about restrictions on the appropriate use of “free” resources by House members. In addition, it sought the House Administration Committee’s participation to provide guidance on actual procurement issues.

Advocates for adoption earlier this year presented a concrete example of the use of the open source tool WordPress to support Start-Up Day Across America, an annual event designed to connect members of Congress with emerging businesses in their districts.

After discussions and dialog among congressional offices and open source advocacy groups, both the Ethics and Administration Committees provided the necessary clearance for House adoption of the technology.

“We now have clear guidance on the use of open source software in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

“For over a decade, individual coders and businesses around the country have been working with open source software because of cost savings, productivity gains, and the ability to modify the code to meet specialized needs. It’s past time that taxpayers see the same benefits,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.

Tools for Legislation and Constituents

Practical uses of open source are many, with a wide range of applications available.

“A number of open source tools exist that will help members of Congress and their staffs make policy and conduct oversight effectively, while saving money and time,” noted Matt Rumsey, policy associate at the Sunlight Foundation.

“For example, the Sunlight Foundation’s Scout tool provides a free and robust alert system, allowing anyone to keep up with legislative changes, new regulations, relevant court decisions, agency inspector general reports, and more,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“The legislative process is still largely an opaque, confusing and paper-based one, despite recent advances in the U.S. House on open legislative data,” observed Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation.

“Important amendments are often drafted by hand, bills are introduced by dropping a physical copy in a box in the Capitol, and even if you do find the hearing or bill you want online, you have virtually zero ability to contribute or participate,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Interactive, open source lawmaking and public hearing software, like our Madison platform and the Project, are built to take policymaking into the Internet age,” Kraft said.

An open source application might be a good choice for a government function that is akin to commercial customer relationship management, or CRM, he suggested.

“Constituent management systems are woefully behind in government. Ask anyone below a chief of staff or communication director level and you will hear one message: ‘There has got to be something better that we can use to correspond with our constituents,'” Kraft continued.

“In fact, there are a number of open source options that — with not too much tweaking — would help improve this most inefficient but crucial aspect of congressional operations,” he said.

“Recently, we’ve begun to think about a new project to create an open source solution for constituent communications that anyone could add on to,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., last month told the Personal Democracy Forum.

“I would love to see a system that is open source, with real-time analytics, with social media and text messaging integrated in from the beginning — and it’s our hope that we’ll be able to respond with quick personal responses and better casework tracking,” she said.

House Connects with a Broad Community

“Adoption of open source software by the House of Representatives will be a force multiplier for the taxpayer dollar, allowing IT systems to be built once and more easily shared between members’ offices,” said Ben Balter, government evangelist at open source repository Github.

“In doing so, the House joins the hundreds of government organizations around the world that participate in the open source community each day to deliver services more efficiently, more transparently, and in collaboration with the citizens they represent,” he added.

“We’ve known for many years that the open-source approach can be a powerful engine for technological advance, economic growth, and the creation of new, powerful initiatives ranging from the Open Knowledge Foundation and Creative Commons to Linux and Wikipedia,” said Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy at the R Street Institute.

Supporters of open source technology in the House are taking steps to continue the momentum generated by the adoption initiative. Within the next month or so, Reps. Farenthold and Polis plan to launch a House Open Source Caucus.

“The Congressional Open Source Technology Caucus will serve as an informal group of members dedicated to fostering understanding of the pivotal role open source technology plays in private sector innovation,” said Rep. Farenthold.

Further, it will encourage “discussion of how open source technology can be used to improve the transparency and efficiency of government offices,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The U.S. Senate has yet to adopt its own open source utilization policy.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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