A new model for public sector open source adoption using Drupal

The debate over whether (OSS) is good for government is over. A close look will reveal the discussion has moved on to one of two things: 1) the necessary, but subsequent implementation questions to be sorted out – security, regulation, procurement, etc. or 2) organizational confusion about how to take the first step. In either case, the precedent of value has been established both within government and elsewhere to allow us to now move on to the natural next set of issues.

Open source software is here to stay

So the discussion must turn from ‘whether to use’ open source to ‘how to make it work’ for government. These discussions should be especially welcome in the government IT environment – long dominated by IT projects that take too long, cost too much, and never seem to hit the mark by the time they are deployed. Corporate and non-profit organizations of all sizes have been able to demonstrate significant financial, operational and strategic value using open source. Also, we have the precedent and models set by the server stack – Linux has become the dominant operating system and Apache, the webserver for the majority of the world’s most important web servers.

The problem is that taking advantage of the open source opportunity at the application level creates paradoxes for government IT. Our system doesn’t know how to take advantage of free and open software at the application level – government is used to building everything custom or customizing products that already cost a ton to license – ‘there is a catch here somewhere for us’ goes the thinking about OSS.

Rather than move quickly to take advantage of affordable and innovative open solutions, government loses momentum and gets bogged down by concerns over whether it is practical or even ethical to use contributed code: Can we use something that is free? How can we procure it then? Can we use code contributions from the outside world? Will it be secure? Can we contribute our own code to the rest of the world?

Drupal works for open government needs

As if the argument to adopt open source needed more kindling, enter the administration’s unrelenting push for Open Government – with a huge online focus and component. Now we are seeking *new* ways to quickly establish mechanisms to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration in online dealings between the government and its citizens. Yet successful user collaboration solutions are already implemented on all kinds of sites.

The case for free, collaborative software which is developed, tested and vetted in the open by an efficient base of innovative developers has been clearly made when you consider the the open government mandate. These are use-cases made for a platform like Drupal – the ability for a user to respond to content and policy online through commenting, rating, sharing, voting, and an endless array of other social media integration is perfect.

As I have said in prior posts on this site “Drupal is up to this challenge”. This is what we use it for and where it performs best. At this week’s Gov2.0 Expo, a group of my colleagues will try to convince you of this point in a session entitled Drupal and Social Publishing Strategies for Meeting the Open Government Directive.

I realize that is going to take some time for government CIOs and web managers to be fully convinced – as it did with publishers, non-profit execs, education administrators and decision makers in dozens of other industries. For sure, the commercial vendors and embedded custom implementers have other ideas about how to construct the next wave of gov2.0 – and they likely have some good solutions to promote too. But open source Drupal is my choice for this particular set of tasks and here is what I think we can do to help prove that.

We need a government community open source CMS option

In late 2008, my company, Phase2 Technology initiated an effort to put together and then release an open source packaged version of Drupal that would help online publishers of news, magazines, and other publications get started with Drupal right away. We called it OpenPublish, it was a big success, and it is going stronger than ever now. From that project, we learned that Drupal can be made significantly more useful, less intimidating and more powerful through a distribution targeted at a specific set of industry challenges.

So after wrestling with putting government sites on Drupal over the last two years, we have decided to launch a similar project we think will help government and Drupal find each other faster – in the same sort of way as OpenPublish was able to married up publishers looking for the advantages of open source with Drupal. We are calling this project OpenPublic because of the similarities and because we see it as the public sector equivalent of the same experiment.

We believe the project can be successful and provide substantial value to government sites if we can achieve these 7 tenets that are lacking in current CMS options for government:

1. Low barriers to entry.

Someone from, or on behalf of, the government should have the immediate ability to start or prototype a project without an RFP, procurement cycle, Statement of Work or contract vehicle. Download, test, try out and play with it for free. Today. No strings attached.

2. Demonstrable return on investment.

It should be easy to prove that that the tax payer is getting high value for services, without wasteful scenarios in which the government is putting large investments directly into reinventing functionality that exists elsewhere or overpaying for commercial licenses to use relatively generic functionality (e.g. core CMS publishing).

3. No proprietary technology or vendor lock-in.

The solution can’t trap the federal government into a proprietary technology or forced monopoly experience that either requires repeated contractual awards, recurring fees or licensing costs to a single company that is the sole provider of technology expertise.

4. Low total cost of ownership.

It should be easy to prove if agencies are paying a premium over the course of ownership via post-purchase fees that do not involve the delivery of additional value. The government cannot grant annuities to vendors that continue to add cost based upon the justifications that were created because proprietary technology was used.

5. True technical flexibility.

The government must be able to modify the solution to meet continually evolving needs and be able to improve, modify, maintain and grow the solution over time.

6. Community innovation & contribution.

The government should benefit from the continued contributions of the open source technical community at large as it relates to inheriting solutions to similar problems and . It should gain from the innovations of this larger pool of talent.

7. Minimal barriers to extend.

The government should have the ability to get free and open access to knowledge, code, training and best practices on the platform – to the extent that others are willing to share – but not required to withhold.

OpenPublic: A community solution

OpenPublic is being developed as a community effort with Phase2 taking what we have learned from building Drupal distributions to lead the efforts, but we – by no means – want to go at this alone. In fact, we believe the quality of the solution and the value it can provide are both infinitely improved by community participation.

So we are looking for both people with technical experience in open source (Drupal preferably) and the business of government itself.

We are also actively looking for feedback and help from the opengov community that haunts events like the Open Government Workshops, the Gov2.0 Summit and Expo, the Open Government & Innovations conference and Transparency Camp. We are looking for the people that hang out and read GovFresh, GovLoop and the Sunlight Labs blog. We want the inputs of people on the Gov2.0 Heroes List and on Twitter lists like this, this and this.

If you believe in the same things and want to help, then please email us (openpublic at phase2technology.com) to let us know of your interests and share your ideas.

About Jeff Walpole

Jeff Walpole is the co-founder and CEO of the leading open source professional services firm based in the Washington DC area, Phase2 Technology, which focuses on clients and solutions in the online publishing, public policy, open government, international development and advocacy sectors. Using Drupal, Phase2 is crafting creative solutions for many open government initiatives. The firm also participates in helping large organizations like the Federal government, publishing firms, and the World Bank to craft APIs to publish data to the web. Jeff has a background that includes over a decade of CMS website development, and five years working with government clients as a systems integrator. Jeff holds a Masters in Business Administration, with a concentration in the Management of Global Information Technology, from the Kogod School of Business at American University and a Bachelors degree from Tulane University in Political Science.

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