Opinion: Real change is possible with software in GoC

Justin Trudeau arrived at the White House in March for his first official visit as prime minister at the exact time as the White House announced its release of a draft policy for the U.S. federal government on reusable and open-source software.

By Mike Gifford

A coincidence, sure, but in this information age, it highlights how far behind Canada is in adopting a forward thinking open-source software policy.

The U.S. government is very clear on this.

“By harnessing 21st century technology and innovation, we’ve found new ways to tap into the collective knowledge of the American people and make it easier to share data, improve tools and services and return value to taxpayers,” it says.

It is clear to governments around the world that leveraging open-source software can promote innovation and collaboration across government agencies. Increased co-operation and innovation is happening within and between countries too. There is wide support in the private sector for open-source software, and the internet is built on it.

There is little evidence of this by Canadian governments, however.

Not only is the U.S. federal government’s new policy stating that new custom code paid for by the government be made available for reuse in the government, it goes further to state that a portion of that new custom code be released to the public as open-source software. This is surely the type of sharing that all governments should encourage.

This will have a major impact on companies that deal with the U.S. government. The government is still technology neutral, but there will be increasing pressure to start engaging in open-source communities. It will be harder for custom code to be either owned entirely by the state or by the state or contractors. That intellectual property will not be locked into proprietary deals, but will be free for people to build upon. This will be a real advantage to small and medium-sized enterprises that can leverage open-source software to compete with larger companies.

Like most internet-based businesses today, OpenConcept uses open-source software. Back in 1999, we didn’t have the resources to pay additional licensing fees or establish certifications with a big brand before starting. We began with tools that were free for us to use, modify and distribute to meet the needs of our clients. Because we were standing on the shoulders of others in the industry, we could deliver high-quality products for our clients at a fraction of the costs.

We wanted not just to use this technology but also influence it. We realized that there was an opportunity to make the Drupal Content Management System the most accessible for people with disabilities. Working with this community, we’ve done that and managed to make three per cent of the internet more accessible in the process.

Open-source software allows small knowledge-based businesses to succeed and innovate. If we are to see real change in Canada, we will need to foster leadership with open innovations here too. There is already a bustling open-source community in Canada; we just need our government to step up to the plate and get involved.

Barack Obama is the United States’ first “tech president,” and we need Mr. Trudeau to be Canada’s first tech prime minister. He already has some experience in coding C++, so this shouldn’t be so hard.

Fortunately, there’s a strong model which has been adopted by the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand that we can emulate. Much of the technology that governments need is already built with open-source tools, and much of it is already hosted for free on Github. Anyone is free to start using the code (or policy) without asking anyone for permission.

“The U.K. government gave us all of the open-source code for the gov.uk website and we’ve based our gov.nz website on that and it’s established a really good relationship between our team here and the U.K. team in the ongoing development of those platforms,” Colin MacDonald, the chief information officer for the government of New Zealand, said recently. “That was fantastic and we really appreciate it.”

The biggest barrier within the government of Canada is culture. If government procurement is allowed to favour proprietary tools in Canada, we will be fostering communities of consumers rather than producers. If Canada is going to be an IT leader, we need to be producing and innovating in order to better meet the needs of Canadians.

With more emphasis on exports to the United States, isn’t it key to keep a close eye on CIO.gov and see what we can do to leverage their best ideas and keep in step with their innovations? Why don’t we have a https://CIO.Canada.ca  site like so many others looking at government digital transformation?

There are good people in the government who have terrific experience with open-source communities. Without clear leadership from the top, as we have seen in other countries, we just won’t see widespread adoption.

Citizens want to see government be able to innovate. There is a strong mandate for openness in the PM’s mandate letters. As citizens, let’s encourage them to not overlook open source.

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting, an Ottawa-based team of web development consultants specializing in open-source development with Drupal.