Q&A: Why Congress is Jumping on the Open Source Bandwagon

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Ben Balter, chief executive for code repository site Github, talked with Nextgov about last week's announcement.

Members of the House, committees and staff have officially received the green light to obtain open source software for their offices, and to discuss software code and policy with developers, citizens and other legislators in communities such as GitHub, according to the Congressional Data Coalition advocacy group. 

The White House joined open source code repository site GitHub in 2012. But it wasn't until this May a sitting congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., first joined the site. Connolly used it to make edits to guidance on implementation of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.

According to the Congressional Data Coalition, Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Jared Polis, D-Colo., plan to create a House Open Source Caucus in upcoming weeks.

Congressional groups can use open source communities to get feedback on workflow software -- messaging systems, websites and "basic types of software that the House needs . . . to do things on a day-to-day basis," Ben Balter, GitHub's government evangelist, told Nextgov -- "the types of challenges you might face in a small to mid-size business."

Once they're comfortable participating in open source communities, Balter said, they may start using them to publish, and ask for public feedback on bills and press releases for instance. The White House has used GitHub to publish changes to its CIO Playbook, among other documents.  

The House is still learning how to make use of open source software, and the Senate hasn't yet officially approved it, Balter explained. Balter spoke with Nextgov this week about efforts to use open source software in the government.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

NG: Why is the House's announcement last week important?

Ben Balter: In the scope of the House, and government in general, there's a little bit more to it than simply publishing code. Especially as the government is using technology more and more to automate the day-to-day citizen services delivery and governance, it's important that citizens get the opportunity to kind of check the government's work.

In the case of the legislative branch, they're using different mechanisms to aggregate feedback from constituents. Open source software is not just about being able to see the human readable underlying source code, but also about the ability to comment on it and propose improvements. 

The idea of open source software all of a sudden becomes a force multiplier for the taxpayer dollar rather than paying for the same piece of software to be built 535 times. 

NG: Why has Congress been hesitant to use open source software?

The types of laws, regulations, ethics rules that govern U.S. representatives . . . weren't really written with open source in mind. [There's a] little bit of an education and a little bit of a crosswalk that has to be done to educate government attorneys and government bureaucrats.

There are regulations that prevent the government from accepting things for free from the public. If I'm a developer, you don't want me building something for the federal government, giving it to them and having them use it and then sue the government for unjust enrichment [or] building this thing, getting it to the government and making it look like a gift to try to influence a policy. 

The House Committee on Ethics worked through all the legal implications, and felt confident that they could put out guidance to the members [allowing open source software procurement]. 

NG: How does GitHub defend against concerns that developing software in public could expose vulnerabilities to hackers?

This is a common open source trope. Humans are humans; no software is perfect. If you start with the premise that all software has bugs and all software has security vulnerabilities, while open source might allow hackers to see those vulnerabilities, it also allows the vast majority of people who aren't hackers to [point out] those vulnerabilities. Yeah, it's possible that someone nefarious could possibly see a vulnerability. Open source, by virtue of the code being public, means you can build a logically secure system. 

NG: What are you doing to get more federal groups to use open source software?

That's my role at GitHub. To date, about 150 U.S. federal groups are on GitHub. About 55 countries are using GitHub for government information. It's about 20,000 government employees across about 1200 organizations. It's a bit of an uphill battle, combating "FUD" -- "Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt."

There's something to be said for the fact that the software developed by the [House], developed with taxpayer funded code, now will eventually be released back to the people. 

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