Government Users Start Looking Under Linux Hood


If you are a local government IT official in the U.S. today, it’s likely easier for you to pick up a phone and get easy, quick answers from proprietary software vendors to find technology products to fill your needs, rather than having to manually sort through the sometimes fragmented world of open source projects to find a good fit.

But as local government IT budgets continue to be slashed due to the economic recession, some officials say that could be changing.

Last week, at the Intergovernmental Technology Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., Lynn C. Willenbring, the CIO for the city of Minneapolis, said in an interview that one reason she’s not brought in open source software for key uses in her department so far is that it can be harder to find the right applications because there’s no easy way to sort through all the offerings. It’s not like picking up the phone and calling a vendor, or even like having a vendor call her to tell her or her staff about their latest software, which could fill a specific need, she said.

“One of the challenges from a government perspective is that when we go out for an RFP (Request for Proposal), it’s the current [commercial] vendors who answer the RFP,” she said. “You don’t have open source groups seeking RFPs. We just don’t see open source responses.”

And since her department and others usually have to choose the winner of a contract through the RFP process, that leaves out open source projects which could very well fit their needs.

“It’s the ultimate conundrum,” Willenbring said.

Yet at the same time, there are reasons to believe that some day she may have to take a fresh look at open source software, if for nothing else but to save dwindling dollars.

That could happen, she said, as enterprise software licensing fees continue to rise from major vendors like Microsoft Corp. As those licensing fees continue their climbs, she said it’s likely she’ll have to investigate more options such as open source to help meet her budgets and fulfill the needs of the city’s government IT infrastructure. “You always have to be open to what is the best way to do things now, not how you did it in the past.”

Dr. Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, a Washington-based non-profit group that helps local government leaders with technology issues, said it’s very likely that the tough economy will eventually cause many local and state governments to take similar looks at their IT systems.

That won’t happen overnight, though, Shark said in an interview after the conference.

Often, local government IT leaders “believe that they do not have the staff to do these kinds of things with open source,” he said, due to fears of losing control of their systems and data. “I think there are some legitimate things raised, having to do with control” and using open source. One major concern for many government IT officials is that they may not want to contribute their software customizations back to the open source projects due to worries about security and their concerns for public information, Shark said.

“It comes down to control and system integration,” he said. “Also do local governments have the staffs to make this work? They do like the comfort of going to an IBM or an Oracle Corp.,” to get their technology needs met directly.

In the past, “the big software companies have had an awful lot to do with the influence on these kinds of decisions,” Shark said. “But budgets may change this. Governments will have to more closely look at open source.”

Another key to future migrations, he said, will likely come from higher political leaders who take a stand and call for governments to take a deeper look at using open source to save money. “It really depends on who’s the driver,” he said. If such a decision is left to a CIO, there might be some fear of change or of taking such a stand, he explained. “But if it’s the mayor or another leader, it’s amazing what can happen.”

Such changes will likely be incremental, Shark said. “It’s not just about money. It’s also about value. Open source, we are starting to value more than we did. The values are shifting on all fronts and this is something that will be looked upon more than it has in the past. I think in the next three to five years, we will see a shift in that direction.”

Thomas A. McQuillan, who served as director of IT for the city of Grand Rapids, Mich., for more than 25 years until retiring in 2007, said in an e-mail response that despite tough budgets, though, open source won’t be the answer to every governmental technology need. “Open source and Linux are definitely part of the solution,” wrote McQuillan, who now heads his own technology consulting firm, Quill Consulting LLC. “The key is to find appropriate and proven software which meets specifications.”

At the same time, proper judgment is critical, he said. “From my experience, I would not be the guinea pig that debugs software at taxpayer and user expense. I would not consider using open source for mission critical applications such as computer-aided dispatching, payroll, tax billings, and enterprise resource planning. This is a case of risk versus reward. How much risk is an organization willing to accept for the financial reward? With mission critical applications, financial reward is not the most compelling criteria for selection.”

Some real open source opportunities that could be very positive are the incorporation of Open Document Formats and the use of Google documents and other applications, McQuillan said. “Key issues to consider are where my data is located and who has access to it. Also, is the product compatible with software that needs to be attached to it?  How comfortable is top management and how does this fit in with corporate culture? Government is a huge purchaser of software and with a little coordination, leveraged purchasing of Linux and/or open source products could reduce expenditures and meet business requirements.”

Just talking about such scenarios means that there can be financial benefits for local governments who open their eyes to open source alternatives, he said. “We are already at the point where open source is intriguing financially. Traditional vendors have to respond to competition and re-evaluate their price points. This creates a win-win situation for our customers who have to pay for our services.”

“Some in this industry refer to open source as ‘open sore’ because the early adopters have the wounds that come with being on the forefront and the risk to personal reputation and career security,” McQuillan said. “As long as the horror stories continue, the wise money will be on the incumbents to milk all the revenue that they can from the legacy products of today. Time will tell and government will play a critical role.”