Oct 30 2006

Starting a Revolution

Massachusetts' Peter Quinn promotes the sharing of publicly owned applications and open source collaboration between state and local governments.

Peter Quinn

Skeptics may believe that state and municipal IT departments are too resistant to change to become a force for revolutionary transformation. But the open source movement and the public sector’s growing adoption of products and application development strategies soon may prove the skeptics wrong.

The open source community is pointing the way for expanding circles of innovation and collaboration among state and local governments, and the timing couldn’t be better. Application development in the public sector is ripe for reform and revolutionary change.

Our projects reflect the siloed thinking in our branches of government and agencies. And a risk-averse mentality encourages us to delegate most of our projects to solution providers. Abdication of responsibility is the norm, and transferring accountability to someone else is a key attribute of the risk-averse state of mind.

As a result, the public sector’s record for successfully developing large-scale applications and implementing complex projects is abysmal. Too often, the projects are late, over budget, littered with poorly written code or accompanied by serious performance issues. It’s a prescription for cumbersome applications that rarely return promised productivity improvements and sap IT budgets through exorbitant management and maintenance costs. Who is to blame? The enemy is us—those of us in government who implement these systems and those in the private sector upon whom we have become so dependent.

But hope remains. The tenets of the open source movement call for ongoing innovation by increasing the circle of collaborators. Everyone who uses the code may contribute bug fixes or innovative revisions to make the software better for all. This is a tenet we must adopt, and there are obvious ways to do so.


First, throw off the shackles of recidivist defeatism that is common in government. Those individuals see only the impediments but never the possibilities of new development strategies.

Second, test the validity of the open source community and its products. Wholesale adoption is not required, but whet your appetite with the creativity and open nature of the movement.

Third, pick a small project in your locality and build it using resources from many agencies and suppliers. Make sure to perform process mapping and process redesign for the new environment. As the development project progresses, focus on component building. This approach will keep you aware of where you are in the process and will allow for manageable change.

The private sector has a strong and continuing role to play in this new model because government will never have the resources or the complete technical background to achieve success on its own. Vendors should learn from this initiative and build on the experience.

Fourth, when you are ready, reach out to other municipalities and states and create applications together.

Eric Kriss, secretary of administration and finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, says that “the cost of government is not sustainable in its present state.” This applies to health care, public safety and information technology.

Given the ever-expanding costs of running public sector agencies, where will we get the money to replace our massive legacy systems? States and municipalities provide many similar services, such as collecting taxes and registering automobiles. Yet we continue to build custom technology solutions without taking advantage of collaboration. It’s a cost we can no longer afford.