The Open Source Skills Agencies Need

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide “7 Open Source Myths Debunked.” We spoke with a dozen government technologists, lawmakers and other experts to debunk common myths and help your agency make fact-based decisions about using open source. To view other myths, resources and facts about the state of open source adoption in government, download the full guide here.

One common myth of open source is that the government doesn’t have the necessary skillsets to support open source. The rumor mill is that agencies rely on contractors and don’t have the in-house staff or support to manage and maintain open source software.

Here are the facts.

It’s true that agencies work closely with industry to implement and maintain software, but there are many instances where agencies have developed their staff to tackle these projects in-house.

Several agencies, including the Housing and Urban Development Department, have launched internal digital service teams to lead software-based projects. HUD already has talented user experience professionals on board, and the department is looking to hire more developers to fill out its digital services team, said Mark Hayes, HUD’s Chief Technology Officer.

At the state level, Oklahoma’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services – Information Services Division (OMES-IS) is proof that government can and should invest in employees by supporting efforts to learn how to review code, test it and add new features to software.

Back in 2012, the state unified IT staff under OMES Information Services. Some employees were uneasy with the transition, but the agency worked with them to ease those concerns and identify how their skills could best serve the organization.

Open source played a key role in the state’s ability to withstand the changes. Unlike the skills needed to manage proprietary software, the skills needed to support open source software are more common because of the collaborative nature of how that software is developed. This made it easier for the state to fill vacant positions with employees who already had the skillsets needed to manage the state’s software.

There’s also a role for industry to play. Open source is all about collaboration, so it’s highly likely that your agency will be partnering with contractors on some open source projects. You may find that these engagements are less costly than working with a vendor to support proprietary software.

Government agencies have had that experience in several areas, including web hosting and managed services. In some instances, Oklahoma will call in outside experts to install the software, but employees will manage it long-term.

The government can only outsource so much, Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island’s Secretary of State. “I really believe very strongly that government needs to embrace open source. We’re really at a time where government just needs to be able to own and produce basic IT programs and functions.”

Although technical skills are critical, there are other soft skills that make a project successful.

“A lot of times when people talk about open source, they mean Drupal and repository,” said Alexis Bonnell, Division Chief Applied Innovation and Acceleration for U.S. Agency for International Development’s U.S. Global Development Lab. “We take that open source construct from a technology lens, and we believe that you have to start an open source project from the very beginning as an open partnership as well,” she said.

Some quick tips:

  1. Newer developers are often familiar with open source software and instead of fearing it, they expect to use it.
  2. Have a process for approving new open source projects, or else your team will be taxed with implementations and forced to support one-off projects.
  3. If you’re managing an open source project, make sure to understand any gaps between your department’s needs and what the software can offer.

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