New OMB policy pushes agencies to actively build and share ‘People’s Code’

In an effort to cut back on 42,000 different transactions and the $6 billion agencies annually spend on software, the White House is encouraging agencies to make custom-developed source code open for sharing across government.

A new policy memo from Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott and Chief Acquisition Officer Anne Rung sets agencies on a path toward making any new, custom source code developed specifically for a federal agency available for other departments to access and use.

“By making source code available for sharing and re-use across federal agencies, we can avoid duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across federal agencies,” Scott said in a blog post. “By opening more of our code to the brightest minds inside and outside government, we can enable them to work together to ensure that the code is reliable and effective in furthering our national objectives.”

The policy requires agencies to release at least 20 percent of custom-developed code annually as Open Source Software for three years under a new pilot program. They’ll continue to collect data related to that custom software and create metrics to measure its performance, the policy said.

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In addition, the Office of Management and Budget will launch Code.gov within the next 90 days, which will give agencies more tools and best practices to help them implement the new open source policy. Code.gov will also eventually serve as an inventory of all of agencies’ open and accessible code, the memo said.

OMB’s three-step process emphasizes that agencies should look at existing options in the federal and commercial space first before deciding to build custom code.

  1. Research, analyze and review alternatives: Before buying any new technology or custom-developed code, agencies should consider their mission and operational needs, as well as the administration’s cross agency priority goals. They should also look at alternatives and then decide whether buying a new software solution or using an existing federal solution is the best option.
  2. Consider existing commercial solutions: If no existing federal solution meet the agency’s needs, consider a commercially available option instead.
  3. Consider custom development: If no other existing federal or commercial option suits the organization’s needs, consider procuring custom developed code as an agency or “in conjunction with existing federal or commercial code.” Agencies should think about the value of publishing new custom code as open source and consider that value when negotiating rights and terms for the contract.

The memo also details how agencies should build these new values around open source and sharing into their contracts for new, custom-developed source code.

“Agencies that enter into contracts for the custom development of software shall — at a minimum — acquire and enforce rights sufficient to enable governmentwide reuse of custom-developed code,” the memo said. “Agencies must ensure appropriate contract administration and use of best practices to secure the full scope of government’s rights.”

The administration’s new open source policy has long been in the works. OMB released a draft version of this policy with an open comment period in April.

OMB
Pamela Walker, Senior Director for Federal Public Sector Technology, ITAPS

“It’s been on the agenda for awhile, and it’s one of the things that they wanted to get off their plate before this administration ends,” said Pamela Walker, senior director for federal public sector technology at the IT Alliance for Public Sector. ITAPS was one of several industry groups that commented on the draft policy.

From ITAPS perspective, OMB incorporated quite a bit of industry feedback into the final policy.

For example, the new memo discourages agencies from mentioning specific brands or codes in requests for proposal, which ITAPS said was a common complaint that it heard from its members.

It’s unclear whether OMB’s new policy will truly prompt agencies to go to industry less often to buy new custom code, because it’s unclear what agencies have already developed, Walker said.

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“It could go either way,” she said. “Right now, people don’t have an inventory of really what’s out there. Once they get that inventory to see who’s using what, there could be a cutback on considering purchasing code from industry if something’s available for their use. That’s something to be seen.”

The administration’s new open source policy is in line with similar initiatives to make agencies more transparent under the second Open Government National Action Plan and with policies in the Digital Services Playbook to improve access to custom software.

The U.S Digital Service and General Services Administration’s 18F have been big proponents of open source. For example, USDS and the Veterans Affairs Department published how they built Vets.gov, the VA’s new website that aims to serve as a one-stop-shop to apply for healthcare online and access other benefits.

USDS and 18F also helped the Education Department develop a college scorecard, which more clearly organizes key information on colleges and universities around the country. The code for that tool is also open source.

The new open source memo is one of several new policies OMB has pushed out in recent weeks. Walker said it’s clear the administration is trying to finish what it started on many initiatives before the upcoming presidential transition.

“There’s still more policies to come, like the cybersecurity acquisition one that came out last August,” she said. “That’s still overdue. We expect even [more] stuff as this administration is heading out.”