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OSCON 2015 – GaaS (Government as a Service)

At OSCON the keynotes are interesting and influential speakers but not arranged around a specific yearly theme. In this post and a future one, I want to pull together this theme of using the concepts and principles of Open Source in new ways. Two speakers, from the US and UK governments, provided fascinating insights and the US speaker gave his audience a challenge.  Although they were are on different days, there was a clear thread that ran through both presentations. In part this is true because the US team was modeled after the one in the UK.

A quick Google search shows that my use of GaaS has not yet caught on the way that PaaS or SaaS has; the top two hits are for GaaS are:

  • Gallium arsenide (GaAs) is a compound of the elements gallium and arsenic
  • Generally Accepted Auditing Standards, or GAAS are sets of standards against which the quality of audits are performed and may be judged.

I’ve sent a reminder a year from now to see if Government as a Service has improved its search results. The first five pages of search results only list variations of the above two results. It reminds me of the joke that the best place to hid a body is on page 2 of a Google search results.

Coincidentally this topic came up recently from OSCON when President Obama appeared on Jon Stewart. The discussion of the Digital Services Team is approximately 10:04 through 12:20. President Obama referred to the team as a bunch of guys in tshirts, who dress a little bit better now they are working for the US government. Ironically, Mikey presented in a tshirt at OSCON.

Below are the descriptions from the two keynotes.

Mikey Dickerson, Federal Governement, United States Digital Services Team – The Federal Government’s approach to technology is outdated and maddening. But this dysfunction didn’t come out of thin air—it’s rooted in deep, structural realities. Less than a year old, the U.S. Digital Service is hacking bureaucracy and improving services millions rely on every day. Mikey will talk about how that work is going and how the group is spurring change in the open.

Hadley Beeman, Open Data, Open Standards & Technology policy, U.K. Government | W3CE. Openness is good for Government on many levels — open data, open standards, open source, open markets. Where we set the way we work in Government, it’s important to let industry determine the technical standards we work with. We can’t do everything ourselves and by making our own code and data open we have an opportunity to gain from innovation as well as support other services to be developed by suppliers of all sizes.
Make things open, it makes things better.

Hadley discussed how her office identifies gaps and rather than trying to address with only governmental employees, they are focused on posing the challenge to key experts inside and outside of government. Once a consensus is reached, her office ensures that it is adopted as a standard. Basically the UK government has a modified crowd sourcing approach to setting standards which I found truly innovative.

Mikey described how he became involved with the group that became the Digital Services Team. Several years ago Mikey had been living his life, not paying attention to the problems with healthcare.gov. If there is ever a movie version, the government would land a black helicopter on his lawn and tell him that he needed to get in, no questions asked. In reality after he agreed to spend three weeks with a team to formulate recommendations and priorities, he had to purchase his own middle seat to on a flight to DC. It was interesting to heard the process he went through from Google employee taking a sabbatical to help the government fix a specific problems to the Digital Services Team.

Having been on the inside for some time now, he had a number of points. First is that the official government IT spend is approximately $84 billion a year. This does not count shadow IT so the true number is larger. Mikey stated that this amount is twice what venture capitalists put into IT firms and that there is no reason OSCON attendees and exhibitors should be interested in being part of that of our collective tax dollars. He also explained that yes most of that spend is on commercial software and there is an equilibrium in Washington between government, software firms and contractors.

Mikey then discussed how the Digital Services Team is trying to influence that equilibrium. He pointed out that his team has to be effective without being disruptive, that the Digital Services Team can’t proposed a revolutionary approach to the Social Security Administration or Department of Defense, that they need to influence from the inside as oppose to suggest that Uber’s next project be to compete with the federal government.

Mikey then wrapped up with a list of changes he hoped to accomplish before the end of the 2015:

  • Get open source products on the relevant GSA contract, making them eligible for purchase.
  • Make sure that contracts state that the government owns the code developed and then can use it however needed the government wants.
  • Suggesting that all the code the government has rights to is made available via open source.
  • Educating procurement staff on current best practices in IT. An example was Agile methodology is not accepted in most government contracts.
  • Ensuring that software project specifications include APIs that can be used by both governmental and non-governmental entities. Moving away from monolithic applications.
  • When government does purchase commercial software, an explanation as to which open source solution(s) were considered.

At the end, Mikey challenged us to take the passion that OSCON attendees exhibit and bring it to the government for a year or two. Not to fix all the IT problems but to continue influencing policy. Some people will move to DC and join the government, others will offer their expertise in other ways. I look forward to the day when there will be the equivalent of open source foundations focused on modernizing not government IT but the standards and specifications that go into RFPs and contracts.

I hope you feel hopeful and excited about this possibility. I left the keynote not frustrated by the current state but hopefully about the to be state. Besides anyone who can casually drop in a The Princess Bride reference by saying the direction for fixing healthcare.gov was have fun storming the castle, is simpatico.

 shutterstock_111712103_Capitol                                                                                                                                                                                                      shutterstock_167770721_Parliament

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