David A. Wheeler's Blog

Sat, 09 Jan 2010

California: Open Source Software is Okay!

The California state government has officially declared that it’s okay to use open source software inside the California state government. On January 7, 2010, the California Office of the State Chief Information Officer (OCIO) released Information Technology Policy Letter (ITPL) 10-01, titled “Open Source Software Policy” . A key purpose of ITPL 10-01 is to “formally establish the use of Open Source Software (OSS) in California state government as an acceptable practice”, and the first sentence of its policy statement is that “The OCIO permits the use of OSS”. It even includes the ten-point open source definition (OSD) as promulgated by the Open Source Intiative, to make sure that there’s no misunderstanding.

I think this is a big deal. Officially saying “it’s okay to use free/libre/open source software (FLOSS)” is really important before FLOSS can get widespread use in governments. Most technologists already understand the potential advantages of FLOSS, but they encounter a lot of resistance when they try to use or develop FLOSS in large organizations like governments. Far too many middle managers are instinctively afraid of change from “the way we’ve always done it”. For example, they may be afraid of unseen problems, or afraid their bosses will rake them over the coals later. Far too often the middle managers have misunderstandings about FLOSS, too. For example, many managers still believe the myth that “you can’t get support” and are unaware of the many companies that do provide such support. Companies that make competing proprietary products are delighted (of course) when governments don’t consider their competition… but in an era of tight budgets, it doesn’t make sense for governments to ignore competing (and often less expensive) products. When top officials give official “top cover” permission to consider FLOSS, then the technologists and middle managers are far more likely to fairly and honestly consider them.

Also, the fact that it’s California matters. The economy of the California is larger than most countries (if it were a country, it would be third through tenth in the world depending on how you measure it). Anything the state of California does can influence other states and countries; acts like this further legitimize the user of Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS).

Of course, the state of California isn’t the only government organization to release a memo officially declaring that it’s okay to use free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). Just looking inside the U.S., the U.S. DoD did this in 2003, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a somewhat similar memo in 2004 that applied to the entire U.S. federal government, the U.S. Navy did this in 2007, and the the U.S. DoD released clarifying guidance in 2009 re-emphasizing this point. And that’s only a few examples from U.S. government organizations; the examples from around the world are legion. It’s really difficult to get people to change what they do… as you can tell from the number of times that various U.S. federal government organizations have had to state and re-state it. Still, they really do have an effect. Official policy statements that FLOSS is used, such as the one California just released, are a necessary first step to changing things from “the way we’ve always done things”.

path: /oss | Current Weblog | permanent link to this entry