Low Code, Not Open Source, is Key to Federal IT Agility

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The government should eliminate code, not try to develop open-source methods.

Francois Dunoyer is the U.S. public sector vice president for Appian.

The federal government is striving to increase the agility of the IT systems that underpin mission-attainment and service-delivery. Taking a cue from the private sector, federal agencies are seeking faster time-to-delivery for new capabilities and a rapid response in the face of changing conditions. To that end, U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott recently announced a new government website, Code.gov, promoting a shared-services approach to open-source software under the new Federal Source Code Policy.

Unfortunately for the feds, open source is not the answer to the agility challenge. The reason why is right there in the name of the site and the policy: code.

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Open source certainly appears attractive. It promises license cost reductions, faster delivery and a greater ability to share solutions. Sounds pretty agile. That’s why the federal government has liked open source for more than 20 years. It appears “free” in a world of cost-containment, and it seems that if you build something for one agency, other agencies can easily reuse it.

As with so many things, however, the devil is in the details. Upfront costs may be lower, but the cost of the specialized coders required to develop in an open-source platform certainly aren’t. Time-to-delivery may be incrementally lower than traditional custom development, but that’s because it can be faster to get started without the commercial licensing time requirements.

Open-source development is still geared toward traditional waterfall development methodologies with long cycles of requirements-gathering and code writing—and every time an application needs to be changed, it’s another long cycle.

That underpins another problem: There is no one size fits all in federal IT. Every agency wants to do things “its way” so every solution goes through some level of redevelopment when being shared across the government. With open source, that redevelopment takes just as long as with any other traditional technology.

Then, there’s the Achilles’ heel of security. There are no fully baked and universal open-source security practices. A solution built in open source likely contains vulnerabilities that may already be known to a large portion of the world. The National Vulnerability Database has reported more than 8,000 new vulnerabilities in open-source software since 2014.

Open source carries with it most of the challenges of commercial coding platforms, plus some unique to the model. So where are the heralded agility and accelerated time-to-capability? The real answer to the federal IT agility dilemma is to vastly reduce—or even eliminate—coding of any type.

The emergence of low-code development platforms will bring the government to a new level of speed, agility and digital transformation. Forrester Research defines this market as “platforms that enable rapid delivery of business applications with a minimum of hand-coding and minimal upfront investment in setup, training and deployment.”

By using declarative tooling that supports visual drag-and-drop composition rather than specialized coding, these platforms support all of the facets of increased agility. They enable business users and IT to collaborate more effectively through a common visual language. They support true agile methodologies of minimum viable products in days or weeks with an equally rapid iteration of solutions through recurring sprints. This is what IT agility is all about.

To really drive change in federal IT, a low-code platform needs to meet some crucial requirements. It needs to fully leverage a cloud environment, while also supporting on-premise and hybrid deployments. It needs to have the most stringent security accreditations, including FedRAMP 2.0, Service Organization Controls 1, 2 and 3, and the Federal Information Security Management Act. The applications built on the platform must operate identically on the web and mobile devices through a single development effort. And it must provide proven enterprise-grade scalability.

The drive for increased federal IT agility is to be commended. It is the underpinning of real 21st-century government. It will ensure faster mission attainment, enhanced service delivery, more fluid agency operations, better sharing and reuse across agencies and ultimately, a lower cost for optimized performance. But it won’t be achieved by more coding—open-sourced or otherwise. It will be achieved by the end of coding.

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