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New White House Open Source Policy Makes it Easier for Agencies to Reuse Custom Software

U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015.

U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015. // AP Photo/Susan Walsh

A new White House open source software policy requires federal agencies to make sure custom-developed source code can be shared and reused across the government.

The new policy, set to be released today, applies both to code written by the government as well as custom software developed by contractors specifically for government use. 

The new Federal Source Code Policy will also include a pilot program to release some federally funded custom code to the public, according to a blog post from U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott to be published today.

The policy will not apply to software developed for national security systems. 

“Through this policy and pilot program, we can save taxpayer dollars by avoiding duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across federal agencies,” Scott wrote in the post. “We will also enable the brightest minds inside and outside of government to review and improve our code, and work together to ensure that the code is secure, reliable and effective in furthering our national objectives.”

The government spends about $9 billion annually on software -- most of it commercially available off-the-shelf. However, when agencies do need custom software, the source code that powers government software applications has typically been siloed within individual agencies and only infrequently shared with the wider public. Some agencies, citing security concerns or pushback from traditional IT vendors, have been squeamish about adopting open source methods.

Under the new pilot program, agencies will be required to release 20 percent of their newly developed custom code each year.

“When deciding which custom code projects to release, each covered agency should prioritize the release of custom code that it considers potentially useful to the broader community,” the new policy states.

The General Services Administration’s 18F team and the U.S. Digital Service -- two tech units launched by the Obama administration over the past few years to rethink the way government delivers digital services -- have been pioneers in using open source methods.

Scott’s blog post cited several recent projects, such as the College Scorecard, which aggregated various data on college affordability into a single, interactive website. USDS, along with the Education Department, built the site using the public code-sharing site GitHub. (Some 150 agencies and other federal groups use the site at last count).

“Today, the federal government is already building some of our most important projects using open source, and more are launching all the time,” Scott said.

The Obama administration pledged to adopt an open source software policy for resharing custom code in a 2014 “national action plan” for open government.

The Office of Management and Budget will take comments on the draft policy for 30 days.

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