As the executive branch of the United States government quietly works on creating an official open source policy, the legislative branch is also moving into the 21st century: Open source software is now officially permitted in the U.S. House of Representatives. That means software developed in the People's House with taxpayer funds will eventually be available to the people. According to the nonpartisan OpenGov Foundation, there will soon be an Open Source Caucus in Congress.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, "open source" means the code behind the software can be viewed, accessed or modified by anyone. Four years ago, House.gov moved to Drupal, an open source content management system, but this is a much more significant shift.
The official policy received support and praise from representatives on both sides of the aisle, as well as open government advocates.
“I’m glad that the House of Representatives has finally opened the door to open-source software,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). “For over a decade, individual coders and businesses around the country have been working with open source software because of cost savings, productivity gains and the ability to modify the code to meet specialized needs. It’s past time that taxpayers see the same benefits."
Members, committees and staff can now use official resources to procure open source software, participate in discussions about open source software online or contribute improvements to software under an open license.
“Open source software presents so many exciting opportunities for members of Congress to more effectively represent and interact with their constituents,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). “By taking advantage of the newest technology and collaborating with the open source community, we can improve everything from the accessibility of congressional websites to the efficiency of business on the House floor. Personally, I can’t wait to begin integrating open source technology into my office’s daily operations.”
Policies and standards are being discussed in the open on Github, the social software platform that hosts repositories of open source code. Now potentially interesting interactions between Congress and the executive branch -- like Virginia Democratic Rep. Jerry Connolly's change to the language in an IT reform bill the White House is working on implementing -- will move there as well.
This policy also provides a framework for the proposal Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) made at this year's Personal Democracy Forum about the House using open source software to build a better platform for participatory politics.
"So recently we’ve begun to think about a new project to create an open-source solution for constituent communications that anyone could add on to," she said. "What if we could tap into the energy of civic technologists like you? I would love to see a system that is open-source, with real time analytics, with social media and text messaging integrated in from the beginning -– and it’s our hope that we’ll be able to respond with quick personal responses and better casework tracking."
More speculatively, this could be a significant step toward a future in which the Internet might one day transform government, as NYU professor Clay Shirky explored in a 2012 TED talk.
If this rhetoric is expressed in code and collaboration over the coming years, President Abraham Lincoln's words may need to be adapted for the 21st century: software for the people, built with the people, released back to the people.