House Republicans and Democrats Find Rare Bipartisan Agreement on Open Source IT Procurement

Edmund Billings, MDIn these politically polarized times, Americans expect Republicans and Democrats to disagree on every detail right down to what day of the week it is. This is especially true in the posturing hurly-burly of the House, where members can appeal to the few select priorities of a gerrymandered district to win re-election.

So it’s remarkable and unexpected when any legislation exits a House committee with unanimous bipartisan support. It’s even more surprising when the legislation potentially threatens the status quo for established corporate interests—in this case information technology companies.

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITAR) —sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa along with Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, and supported by every member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—threatens to put open-source software on par with proprietary by labeling it a “commercial item” in federal procurement policies. The proposal wouldn’t give open source a privileged position, just an equal one.

The legislation would also limit CIOs in federal agencies to one where there are sometimes many. And it would give the president the power to appoint these IT leaders. In short, FITAR would enable the president to act like a CEO and give agency CIOs the responsibility and flexibility to cut costs where they are cut-able.

Issa and Connelly’s proposed legislation was inspired by a 2010 Government Accountability Office report that identified 37 of 810 IT investments in the departments of Defense and Energy alone as possibly redundant. The GAO estimated potential savings over five years from eliminating these redundancies at $1.2 billion. Issa and Connelly did the math and saw billions more—an estimated $20 billion annually—in potential IT savings across the sprawling and expanding federal government complex.

Predictably, entrenched IT industry trade groups have come out against FITAR—strongly so in the case of initial drafts. So let’s look at what FITAR actually calls for:

  • “… open source software is a valid procurement option that shall receive full consideration alongside other options…”
  • “Nothing … shall be construed to modify the Federal Government’s long-standing policy of following technology-neutral principles and practices …”
  • “To clarify that the preference for commercial items … includes all open source software that meets the definition of the term ‘commercial item’…”

The proposed legislation also calls on the federal government to establish standards for the acquisition of open source—standards that already exist for traditional proprietary software acquisition—to make the playing field level.

So what’s actually happening here?

Open source has grown up, and the usually-late-to-the-party federal government is catching up. The federal deficit is massive and growing, and proprietary systems can no longer assert a decided functional advantage over open source. They can and do, however, cost a lot more.

Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires, testifying before Chairman Issa’s committee, said that the government should not have an “open source first policy”, but should look at open-source options whenever possible.

To be fair, it’s more than the equal consideration of open source that has traditional vendors up in arms.  The FITAR legislation also calls for a Federal Infrastructure and Common Application Collaboration Center where the government can share technologies.  The Collaboration Center threatens to throw federal IT acquisition wide open, establishing standards that ensure the best, least expensive alternatives win out.

If you sell expensive proprietary software, this commoditization of federal IT acquisition scares you as much as open source does. Commoditization undermines the kinds of cozy public/private relationships—rent seeking to political scientists but corruption to the average American voter—that enrich corporations without a rigorous competitive process.

Ian Murdock describes the evolution of industry commoditization in an essay from Open Sources 2.0, by O’Reilly Press.

    So, how do incumbent firms fight back against commoditization? Another moral of the story is that they shouldn’t. The forces of commoditization, being natural market forces, cannot be beaten. Yet time and time again, incumbent firms fight them. First, the challengers are ignored or dismissed as cheap knockoffs, unsuitable for any but the least demanding customer. Then, they are ridiculed, for lacking in imagination and innovation. Then, invariably, they are imitated—but by this point, it is too late, as the market has fundamentally changed, and the incumbent finds itself no longer able to compete because the former challengers are built for a commodity market while the former incumbent is not.

Proprietary technology firms are fighting the natural history of technology evolution. Commoditization and acceptance of open source is the norm across most all private technology markets. Issa and Connelly’s legislation applies these commonly held principles to the federal marketplace. Whether they know it or not, U.S. taxpayers stand to benefit from the competition, innovation and savings it will bring.

As Jon Stewart entertainingly pointed out on the Daily Show a couple of weeks ago, the cozy relationship between the Department of Defense and contractors with regard to health IT has not benefitted soldiers and veterans. In the best interests of American citizens and those who defend us, we really should look to proven, affordable IT resources to handle both federal budgetary decisions and the current IT standoff between VA and DoD.

Edmund Billings, MD, is chief medical officer of Medsphere Systems Corporation, the developer of the OpenVista electronic health record.