Oracle rips innovation shops

In comments on a planned governmentwide modernization scheme, database firm Oracle called on the federal government to rethink open source and hiring software coders.

Shutterstock image (by Your Design): Human head creating a new idea.

Government tech policy makers across the Obama and Trump administrations have made a bad bet by picking Silicon Valley innovation as a model to modernize the federal enterprise, according to comments submitted by vendor Oracle.

The comments, signed by Oracle Senior Vice President Kenneth Glueck, came in response to a White House plan to push federal agencies into commercial managed services, improve acquisition strategies and ramp up security.

Glueck argues that the American Technology Council plan sets out admirable goals but that the methods and strategies "instead [seem] to be driving the government in the opposite direction."

"This report wasn't prepared in a vacuum, but rather is part of a larger attempt to transform government IT that predates the Trump Administration," Glueck says. "It is our view that both this report and those efforts are not only likely to fail, but also put the taxpayer at substantial security risk."

Glueck unpacks what he says are three "false narratives" about IT modernization, and in so doing rips ongoing efforts to stock government with a talent pool drawn from the ranks of innovative 21st century technology companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter via innovation groups like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F.

Glueck's first false narrative is that Silicon Valley's fail-fast-and-iterate business model makes sense for the U.S. government. He argues that "under no circumstance should the USG attempt to become a vendor."

"The USG can never develop, support or secure products economically or at scale," Glueck's comments continue. "Government developed products are not subject to the extensive testing in the commercial market. Instead, the Government should attempt to emulate the best-practices of large private-sector Fortune 50 customers, which have competed, evaluated, procured and secured commercial technology successfully."

Second, he argues that the government should get away from the idea that in-house developers are important for IT modernization. "In-house government procurement and program management expertise is central to successful modernization efforts. Significant IT development expertise is not," Glueck writes.

Finally, the Oracle exec blasts efforts to make government software open and reusable by default, which has been the official U.S. government policy since August 2016.

"There is no such principle that technology developed or procured by the USG should be available free for all citizens, in fact that would present a significant dis-incentive to conducting business with the USG," Glueck says.

Former federal CIO Tony Scott's open source plan was centered around sharing among agencies. In a blog post announcing the new policy, Scott wrote, "by making source code available for sharing and re-use across federal agencies, we can avoid duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across federal agencies."

According to Glueck, the current trajectory would result in more custom code, not less.

"Government developed technology solutions must be maintained by the government," Glueck writes. "Every line of code written by 18F, USDS or another government agency creates a support tail that results in long term unbudgeted costs." He also argues that, "the use of open source software has been declining rapidly in the private sector," adding that, "there is no math that can justify open source from a cost perspective as the cost of support plus the opportunity cost of forgoing features, functions, automation and security overwhelm any presumed cost savings."

The recruitment of engineers from Silicon Valley firms, Glueck charges, "has resulted in the predictable outcome of creating favoritism for those vendors' solutions, and seems to replace presumed technical expertise with the more complex task of procuring, implementing, maintaining, and securing systems over the long term."

Essentially, Glueck argues that the Obama administration learned all the wrong lessons from the failed launch of and the breach of the Office of Personnel Management databases, and that the Trump administration is headed down the road of setting those lessons in stone.

Former 18F co-director Aaron Snow pushed back in a series of tweets saying that the "lifetime cost to taxpayers" of 18F and USDS "is less than what taxpayers lost on one failed IT project mentioned in the article." He added that 18F and USDS have delivered "dozens of working, usable, maintainable govt digital services as well as expert consultations that have saved taxpayers over a billion dollars in avoided IT costs." Snow tweeted that neither program has "been perfect, but they've failed small, fast & inexpensively, learned & improved. That's worth trying more of."

As FCW columnist Steve Kelman noted in a recent column, these innovation groups seem to be winning over the skeptics at agencies who have been impressed with the results delivered. USDS and 18F "have now indeed become part of the govtech ecosystem. And they are making a marked contribution to better government IT."

So far, 18F and USDS leaders have had a seat at the table at White House tech policy councils and public support from leaders on Capitol Hill. It remains to be seen what impact pushback from vendors like Oracle will have on the future of these groups inside the government.