Written byGreg Otto
Governments are turning to GitHub faster than you can count the arms on an Octocat.
The number of active government users of the open-source code management platform has tripled over the past year, to more 10,000 national, state and local government users from 27 countries, according to a blog entry posted Thursday by Ben Balter, GitHub’s government evangelist.
Balter chronicled how a movement that started with two U.S. municipalities has grown to include more than 500 government organizations around the world, including 113 federally-affiliated agencies or programs in the U.S. sharing code. He also noted why the web-based repository of open source code and development tools has found a special place among digital developers working for government agencies:
“Unlike the private sector, however, where open sourcing the ‘secret sauce’ may hurt the bottom line, with government, we’re all on the same team,” Balter wrote. “With the exception of say, football, Illinois and Wisconsin don’t compete with one another, nor are the types of challenges they face unique. Shared code prevents reinventing the wheel and helps taxpayer dollars go further, with efforts like the White House’s recently released Digital Services Playbook, an effort which invites every day citizens to play a role in making government better, one commit at a time.”
Balter tells FedScoop that the U.S. Digital Services team shows a way of thinking that is normally reserved for startups is beginning to become entrenched in the way the government conducts business.
“We’re hitting the tipping point where open source and working collaboratively is actually becoming easier than to work alone and it’s starting to make business sense to work in the open, even if its within a team or agency,” Balter said. “We’re starting to see that ‘geek culture’ is becoming more mainstream in government, it’s no longer seen as these hippies in California with their tie-dye laptops, but something that serious enterprises can do.”
A good example of how the federal government is leveraging GitHub can be seen at We The People, the White House-run website that lists petitions ranging from the serious to the silly, tackling everything from gun control measures to an effort to deport Justin Bieber.
While We The People displays a degree of openness by allowing the public to call for legislation, its underlying code is hosted on GitHub for anyone to tweak and submit changes as they see fit.
“It typifies the point that as government bureaucrats use technology for the day-to-day workings of government, it should become important that the technology is exposed to the public,” Balter said.
Even as federal use of GitHub continues to flourish, Balter notes that the procurement and security assurances needed for most agencies creates roadblocks he is constantly trying to fight through.
“It would be easier if we charged $30,000 a year or $300,000 a year rather than $300 a year [for private repositories], because the procurement mechanism just doesn’t know how to understand that,” he said. “On the legal and security side, it’s easier to do closed-source software even though all the government security frameworks are about public exposure of information. If the source code is already open source, you can mitigate that risk, but it’s not a framework that’s properly in place.”
Even with the always-present security worries and bulky mechanisms of the federal government, Balter said even an embrace of the open source ethos can help the government evolve in the 21st century.
“I would hope that anything that is not a security or a privacy concern could be fully open source,” he said. “It’s taxpayer-funded code. We should have the opportunity to not only check the government’s work, but be on the same team and make it better. And for those things that can’t be fully open, I would hope the direction that we are heading in is that they will be as open as they can be.”
To see a list of some of the projects governments host on GitHub, visit GitHub’s showcase.