The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 19, 2016

Open-source software will “eat the government”

August 19, 2016

Five years ago, technology investor Marc Andreessen declared in an essay for the Wall Street Journal that software was “eating the world.” He predicted that software companies were poised to take over large swaths of the economy.

Today, software-centric businesses—like Google, Amazon, and Netflix—have so successfully dominated their nonsoftware competitors that the necessity of software-centric services is practically a given in the world of business. It has been far less obvious that software is also eating the world of government.

Commercial software is predicting when and where crime will occur, monitoring usage and automating control of public utilities, resolving disputes and minor criminal cases entirely online, managing traffic, and performing or enhancing many other governmental functions.

Software has huge potential to improve government services, and an investment fund focused on these types of start-ups estimates the "GovTech" market is worth $400 billion. However, the government is very different from commercial business markets.

Government and business are different worlds

Public policy and administration requires significant accountability and transparency, which can conflict with standard commercial business practices, such as nondisclosure agreements and intellectual property protections.

For example, a company that provides criminal risk–assessment software to aid judges' criminal sentencing decisions has been criticized for overpredicting the risks of releasing black people, while underpredicting the risks for white people. Yet, the company doesn't want to open its code for public scrutiny because it would compromise their intellectual property interests.

A recent White House report clearly demonstrates the government's appreciation of the perils of software for public administration, but the administration's progress implementing the 2012 Digital Government Strategy demonstrates its intention to take full advantage of this opportunity for the public’s benefit.

The White House has enhanced citizens' ability to interact with a digital government by expanding access to the Internet and K–12 computer science education; injected tech talent into the government by creating the US Digital Service and 18F; and improved the availability and usability of government data. It also named the first US chief data scientist.

Moving to open-source

Perhaps the Obama administration's most significant action to incorporate the benefits of software into government occurred last week, with the release of a memo on federal source code policy. The memo prioritizes the development of open-source software within the government (relative to proprietary commercial software) and sets an expectation that at least 20 percent of newly created government software be open-source.

It makes sense: open-source software models are a much better fit for the government’s unique market conditions than many proprietary business models. The underlying computer code for open-source software is publicly available, can easily be reused, and often welcomes improvements from the public. Open-source software thrives on transparency, public scrutiny, participation, and efficient recycling of code. Where profitability is the primary metric of success for commercial software, the success of open-source software is judged almost entirely by how well it solves a problem.

The White House's memo represents a big step toward democratizing federal government services, and creates a model for state and local governments to build upon. Beyond allowing agencies to make more efficient use of software developed by other federal agencies, it will allow citizens to see, scrutinize, and expand the systems that play an integral and growing role in government operations.

Eventually, it should even be possible for citizens to guide and improve government operations by offering revisions to the government's open-source software.

What this means for public policy

This shift toward open-source government software means that software, in addition to policy, will become an increasingly important and incredibly precise mechanism for improving government performance and operations. Hints of this new form of public policy debate are already popping up in discussions of cities' traffic control algorithms.

Nonprofit organizations and academic institutions are already improving the effectiveness and efficiency of government by hosting and contributing to open-source GovTech software projects.

Policy research organizations like the Urban Institute are incorporating evidence-based practices into the design of open-source software. These organizations can also evaluate software-based social programs and interventions more quickly, for less money, and with greater methodological rigor and statistical precision than has ever been possible.

In 2011, software was already eating the business world, but the services and options available today were hardly imaginable just five years ago. Today, open-source software is poised to eat the world of government, and the coming years will reveal some very exciting changes in government as we know it.

Open Source Database Camp NYC takes place at the United Nations Headquarters on July 10, 2016. Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.