For the first time ever, the US government has a policy requiring the release of source code for federally-funded websites, apps, and other software projects. The new rules, called the Federal Source Code policy, were announced by the White House earlier this week. They include a mandate for federal agencies to open source at least 20% of the code they develop over the next three years. The changes promise to overhaul how the government interacts with vendors on technology projects.
Open source—broadly defined as the publication of computer code—is not a new phenomenon. For decades programmers have shared their code to encourage reuse and collaboration. The vast majority of the internet is created with open source software. Many of today’s professional programmers (including your author) learned by reading source code they found freely available online.
However, the vast, lumbering US government has generally been a slow adopter of open source. In recent years a few projects have been released, including a White House petition platform and the new beta of vets.gov. The new rules should dramatically expand this list. Federal agencies will be required to consider open sourcing any software they build in-house as well as any that they hire an outside vendor to build for them.
Though the new policy cites transparency as a benefit of open sourcing federal code, economics are driving the change. Software vendors have gotten rich from selling expensive, proprietary products to the federal government. Once bought, such platforms are difficult to exit. Open sourcing federal projects promises to eliminate duplication of effort among different agencies, reduce opportunities for vendor lock-in, and make it easier to hire developers who are capable of supporting existing projects.
These changes are part of a broader effort to modernize the technology of the federal government. During his two terms President Obama has overseen the creation of three technology-focused federal organizations, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the United States Digital Service, and 18F. All three routinely publish their work on the popular code-sharing site Github.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that few federal agencies have previously open sourced code. In fact, many have.