Contracting with the U.K. government.
"I have a dream ... to make my government better."
Government contracts. Government Software Contracts. The phrase conjures up images of bribery, corruption, fat profits for next no work. I am of course hoping this is all true. But for the moment if you talk about software in government, you have to talk about GDS.
GDS and "the preference"
Way back when, Liam Maxwell was a well respected IT consultant and one day he wrote a small paper that basically said "If the UK government applied industry best practises in developing software, and switched to Open Source Software to stop getting ripped off, they could save eight billion a year".
For some reason the ca-ching sound of £8 bn reached the ears of then-Tory Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who replied with "Well, go on then". So Liam helped set up GDS which then set about changing UK government's approach to software. It hired people to write new code for high profile new projects. Things like the gov.uk website, the new look DVLA and so forth.
They released their code on GitHub , they did things "Agile", and they made a noise. But one of the biggest noises was almost an accident. You see they also produced service manuals. These are the Cabinet Office's not-really-optional directions to the rest of government on how to buy and develop software. And the story goes that one of the more progressive and leading Scrummasters was asked to put the finishing touches to the manual and get it out there. And he wrote that government should, when purchasing and developing software "have a preference for" open source software.
It went out (you know - publish early and often). And then his bosses noticed that policy had just been made. Big policy, policy that affects the billions of pounds spent each year. But also policy that is exactly why the GDS existed.
So they went into a room, shut the door and discussed it. Came out for some strong coffee and went back in. Then came out again, and said, "Yeah OK. Leave it. It's policy now".
I want to emphasise just what an impact this had. I was just software entrepreneur working for a University in Texas ('cos they were the only people I could find who would pay me to write open source software. Writing free software in the UK for pay ... well, I despaired of my government getting it.)
And suddenly there was the Cabinet Office, Sir Humphrey himself, saying Open Source is the way to go.
It was electric. The very next day I had bought my ticket to a local government conference and I went around expounding to everyone there who would listen, trying to set up pilot projects and so on (see http://www.oss4gov.org).
The industry papers were crazy for this, this was real policy and it mattered that we were going to go in the right direction for once.
And it meant that there could be a dream - it might be worth working for the government. Instead of working for Texas, I could work for Whitehall. I could build software that solves real world problems - and solve them once for the UK. And if they worked for Uzbekistan or United Arab Emirates as well, great. It is a big dream after all.
You see while we all moan and gripe and make fun of bureaucracy, the vast majority of government services are pointing in the right direction. They make lives better for most people, protect those who are most vulnerable and essentially pick up the pieces. It does not always work right, often badly done, underfunded and over-subscribed but in the end most public servants take pride in doing the right thing and going in the right direction.
If you look at LGSL list, you can see over 2000 statutory services - the vast majority of which either have to be digital, or are going to benefit greatly from going digital. Services that government must legally supply, and services that can be done better faster digitally. And why should that be proprietary? (the demand for software to help Returning Officers to organise Polling booths is sky high amoungst international banks and hedge funds).
I rant on about this in the OSS4Gov manifesto.
So as I said, I started a campaign website, headed off to LGA Conference and glad-handed anyone who would listen, paid for a big breakfast bash (visitors - none) and ... Nothing happened.
Was I dejected? Was I down heartend? Yes actually. And well out of pocket for sponsoring lame breakfasts.
But the dream is still there.
It's because in the digital age, when you are doing socially beneficial work, why in hell's name should you have to fight crappy software to get the job done. Shouldn't you get the best software globally possible to do your job, and shouldn't I as a taxpayer get the best deal possible? And more than that, it matters in another way.
In the (excellent, go read it) book "Red Platoon", Medal of Honor winner Clinton Romesha describes fighting off a massive Taliban attack on his camp in Afghanistan. The USAF squadron who supported him had a sign above the mess door -"The mission is a 19 year old with a rifle. Everything else is support."
Whilst not taking away anything from that sentiment, I want to steal it to underline why I think OSS in government actually matters -
"The mission is a nurse with a bedpan Everything else will be DevOps"
I want to spend the next decade building open source software that makes people's lives better, doing it slowly, correctly, and spreading it out over countries that really could do with good digital government services but have no hope of affording it. I mean once California pays for a social worker case management system, what is needed is good devs in each country to manage the localisation and ... Everyone wins.
So, how hard can it be to get one of these open source contracts. I mean I am a professional so doing the work is not a problem. How hard can someone letting me do the work be?
Turns out pretty darn difficult. Despite the GDS wanting people like me, and me wanting to do the work, its still a challenge.
That's the story for part 2.