Written byBilly Mitchell
At the end of May, Haley Van Dyck, a policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget, submitted a “pull request” — a request to change or update a code or document — on the White House’s GitHub for its Project Open Data policy. Her edits to the document were minimal; she added a few lines on the use of open licenses and scratched out a few others. But it was this unprecedented method of updating policy in the open that will likely have much larger ramifications for the future of the open government movement.
“This is the first time that I know that a federal agency, let alone the White house, is doing policy in the open. It’s iterative and collaborative,” said Ben Balter, GitHub’s government evangelist. “Stakeholders both inside and outside government have the opportunity to view changes and there’s an ongoing discussion on the merit of those changes.”
While Van Dyck’s changes aren’t set in stone just yet, her actions show how GitHub — a social code sharing service that encourages openness and collaboration as part of software development workflow — can influence modern policy for the people, by the people. While the language came from a high ranking government official, it theoretically could’ve come from any member of the public with an understanding of how GitHub works.
GitHub is nothing new, and it’s not even the proprietary force behind open source within an open government — though it’s one of the bigger influences. The Federal Communications Commission was the first federal agency to join GitHub in 2010, according to Balter, who spent time at the FCC. And long before that, the federal government was working in an open manner.
“The government has been involved with open source since open source has existed,” Balter said. “The things that we think of today as open source are all originally government creations.” Case in point: the Internet.
But more recently, especially since President Obama took office in 2008 with what Balter refers to as a horde of “geeks” in tow, the open source, open data — open everything — communities have been progressively catching national attention for their success is government transparency and efficiency.
“All of these open source efforts were happening in little silos, and it was a confluence of having a bunch of [new] people in the government who were passionate about being more open, more collaborative, kind of just doing things the way the Internet works,” he said. “The big shift that we’re seeing is that in the past five years or so technology has been pushing us to the tipping point where it’s becoming easier to work together than to work alone.”
When Steven VanRoekel entered his role as the federal chief information officer in 2011, he described his biggest challenge as “doing more with less.” With open source platforms like GitHub, Balter explained, that’s exactly what’s possible through cross-agency collaboration.
“Rather than getting big, bloated proprietary systems, doing things in open source provides a way to save that,” he said. “For instance if the Department of Energy creates a mechanism to publish a blog post and then the Department of Commerce comes along and uses that same mechanism — all of the sudden the American tax dollars just doubled in impact.”
Since the FCC joined GitHub in 2010, dozens more federal agencies have joined to improve development workflow and open their source code. Several more — like intelligence and defense agencies — have used GitHub as an enterprise tool in a more private manner behind a firewall because their code is highly classified. And of course, on the private side, GitHub is also catching fire from small startups to large corporations, like Microsoft.
Balter pointed to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as two notable examples of agencies currently using GitHub. CFPB is building out developer portals on the service, but doing so in a modular manner so that other agencies can “fork” that code and use it to set up their own portals.
And while NGA is thought of as a spy agency with lots of secrets to protect, it’s producing open source code on GitHub, which has proven quite valuable to other agencies, such as the General Services Administration’s 18F.
“They’re putting out code that actually is having an impact on the [federal] community,” Balter said. “If they can do it, anyone can.”
Whether it’s open data, open source, open government or whatever may come next, Balter said it all goes back to a singular philosophy, which explains exactly why a tool like GitHub can be revolutionary in solving some of the federal government’s biggest problems.
“I like to look at open government, or just government in general, as one of the world’s largest open source projects,” he said. “Open source is about creating a community around a shared challenge that no individual could solve on their own. And that’s exactly what government is.”