Building Code: Making Government Code Publicly Available

16 May

Very little of the code that the government pays for is open-sourced. One of the reasons is that private companies would rather the code remain under wraps so that the errors never come to light, the price for producing software is never debated, and they get to continue to charge for similar work elsewhere.

Open-sourcing code is liable to produce the following benefits:

  1. It will help us discover bugs.
  2. It will reduce the cost of building similar software. In a federal system, many local agencies produce (or buy) similar software to help administer similar services. Having the code open-sourced is likely to reduce the barrier to entry for firms bidding to build such software and will likely lead to lower costs over time.
  3. Freely available software under a generous license, e.g., queue management software, optimal staffing software, etc., benefits the economy as firms do not have to invest as much in building such systems.
  4. It will likely increase trust in the government. For instance, where software is used to estimate benefits, the auditability of the software is likely to lead to a modest increase in confidence in the correctness of how the law has been translated into code.

There are at least three ways to open-sourcing government code. First, firms like OpenGov that produce open-source software for the government are already helping bring some of the code online. But given that the space for government software is large, it will likely take many decades for a tangible proportion of software to be open-sourced. Second, we can lobby the government to change the law so that companies (and agencies) are mandated to open source certain software they build for the government. But the prognosis is bleak, given that the government contractors are likely lobbying hard against it. The third option is to use FOIA to request code and make it available on Github. I sense that this is a tenable option.