Tapping Open Source: Linux Philosophy and the Government

This blog post was written by DLT Solutions’ Matt Micene, Engineering Team Lead for the company’s blog. You can visit the full blog by clicking HERE.


With Mil-OSS WG4 over and 2012’s Red Hat Government Symposium kicking off on Tuesday, my mind naturally wanders to topics such as “The Open Source Way” and how Open Source Jedi can help influence the mission. We often talk about the technological side of Open Source: the quality code, the agile frameworks, the powerful tools. Typical objections still focus on the quality of amateurs (no, a community of passionate volunteers) and the security of open code bases (ESR’s quote combined with education about The Benevolent Dictator Check-in Process). We sometimes miss the fact that the Open Source question is usually not a technology fight; it’s a hearts and minds fight. There are many compelling reasons for government to adopt Open Source solutions, but we have more to offer than just code artifacts.

I was struck the other day by the similarity between Linux and the government. Operating systems provide a consistent abstraction from the hardware for applications to use. Government agencies provide infrastructure above and beyond the means of a single citizen. Totally the same, right? Bear with me, I’m sure you have the same look on your face as the first person I inflicted this thought upon. Linux and the government have similar missions: to provide stable, known, and reliable interfaces and infrastructure to their constituent consumers.

I may be stretching a metaphor, but I’m doing it for good reason. The project oversight structure of a successful Open Source project, like Linux, can be translated to the structure of a government agency. This is a way to help government innovate within their mission areas. And there is a need to innovate, but the question is innovate in which direction? We don’t need the FDA to become a venture incubator for new pharma companies, but we may want them to start innovative methods of managing their IT. It can be translated because we don’t need the structures specifically (although we can talk about how that can be useful), but we do need the three basic premises of successful Open Source projects to be introduced to the culture. Those three basic premises are transparency, accountability, and participation or simply “TAP.”

TAP Dance

First, transparency in an Open Source project means everything happens in public; in full view of the world, on mailing lists, and ultimately in the end product – thesource code itself. The Linux Kernal Mailing List (LKML) is like CSPAN, but where CSPAN often reveals scenes like the above picture, LKML may look more like the picture below. One of the great things about radical transparency is that everyone understand your thinking process. Assumptions, interpretations, and conclusions are all visible, comments and debate stay more on point. Having a transparent record also lowers the barrier to entry as the previous debate and comments are centralized and discoverable.

Accountability flows from transparency as people are assigned to accomplish things. Someone takes on responsibility for completing a task, managing a workflow, and reviewing new requirements. This isn’t for reasons of finger-pointing and blame-casting, it’s for ownership and involvement. Without a hand on the helm, projects will circle in self-reflecting recursion and go nowhere. Open Source often ‘scratches an itch, but someone knows what itchy bits need more scratching. This attribution tied back to transparency also gets us provenance for decisions in policy and in coding: we add the why to the how and what. With transparency and accountability, we must add participation. Passionate people are accountable because they want to accomplish something and transparent because they want to communicate it. People participate for any number of reasons – altruistic to self-serving. But participation is key; we must have and encourage people to take part.

Engaging the Masses With Open Data

Am I arguing for a full participatory and sunshine-filled democratic debate over every action? No. I am talking about engaged communities. These are limited groups, potentially smaller than the entire agency. The Linux community is a subset of all Open Source participants, and different people bring different things to the table. But within that community of interest, these three principles have to be fostered. Could Linux operate in a slightly obscured fashion, where you needed to sign up in order to view the proceedings? Well, it already does. You don’t see Linux kernel developer email today without seeking it out. So we can still maintain appropriate classification of sensitive information for security reasons to smaller communities. But we can still determine the impact of those decisions by the shadows they cast. Building a wall around the garden needs to happen for the right reasons, not as a reflexive default. Otherwise you run the risk of eliminating a good set of eyes and input from outside your “normal” network.

What does this radical notion gain us, this new open government agency? How about responsiveness to change? Missions change over time, because the constituency changes over time. But how many acts of Congress does it take to change a lightbulb? Agencies often get stuck in old patterns with little to no recourse for responding to new needs or requirements.

How about better spending? With a more transparent process in place and accountable budgeting, we could get away from mandated, immutable budgets to a spending pattern that allows for cutting failing projects regardless of outside considerations.

How about engaged citizens and administrators where we foster communications in an open manner? The represented population would know the answers to who, how and why, while providing more direct input. Am I advocating an Athenian Assembly? No, but I am saying that We the People should be the rule, not the exception. Getting free access to open data can allow engaged citizens to create tools of use to the agency staff.

Innovation isn’t about disruption; innovation is about thinking differently.


This Tuesday, Matt will be joined by a panel of other Open Source experts to further explore the relationship between Linux and the Government in a session called “Linux as a Platform for an Innovative Government” during the Red Hat Government Symposium. The session will begin at 11AM in Room 807.

Photos courtesy of RedHat.com, rule22.files.wordpress.com, and theage.com.au.

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