California Moves Another Step Toward Open-Source Government

For years now, California has been working on an open-source software policy.

For years now, California has been working on an open-source software policy. Shutterstock

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The comprehensive open-source plan rolled out this week is the latest chapter in a story that has been developing for years.

California this week moved another step forward with an ambitious plan to power state and local government with open-source software.

At an event in Sacramento on Wednesday, the state’s Government Operations Agency and Department of Technology introduced state and local employees and software vendors to “Code California,” the state’s plan to implement open-source code writing. The plan aims to foster the kind of collaborative community that has fueled path-breaking and successful open-source projects across the country.

“We’re working to create a culture where people are open to sharing and working together,” Angelica Quirarte, assistant secretary for digital engagement at the California Government Operations Agency told Route Fifty. “We’re communicating how open source is a way to make software that’s specifically tailored to government needs and that doing that will include everyone working together—state government, local governments, partner organizations, federal government partners.”

The Code California plan is the latest chapter in a story that has been developing for years.

In May, California rolled out an official open source policy that laid out practices designed to make code writing a shared endeavor across departments and governments.

In 2015, looking to update the state’s child welfare services case management system, California decided against going with a single software vendor and instead tapped Code for America and 18F, the federal government’s General Services Administration open-source tech team. The state then held a “codathon” and built the new case management system in part from work produced by the  participants.

“We decided to approach that major tech challenge in a new way,”  Quirarte said. “I call it a ‘demonstration project’ because it put a new approach under the spotlight and showed the benefits of that approach.”

In many ways, open-source coding seems a natural fit for government. The projects are open to the public. The software they produce is owned and maintained by the government and its coders. And there’s little fear that the government will go out of business or discontinue its own fully operational software.

Quirarte explained that the culture that grows up around open-source software projects is another benefit to the approach.

“It’s more grassroots. It’s bottom up, not prescriptive and top down,” she said. “You end up shifting your thinking. You involve more people in what you’re doing. You look at what you’re doing from the perspective of the people who are working with you and the people the code is meant to serve… You have to create a supportive environment and really involve people at all levels of the government and be encouraging each other to give feedback.”

Quirarte said there’s a pioneering element to the project in that there’s no comparable state model to watch. Patience will be important, she cautioned, because the whole point is that the software is never finished.

“We’ll all have to embrace the idea that this is iterative, that we don’t have all the answers, that we can combine approaches. We can’t let that get lost.”

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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