How open source software is transforming public sector culture as well as digital services

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Will Huggins, CEO of Zoocha, reflects on the growing influence of open source software across public sector organisations and teams

Much has been written about the role of open source software (OSS) in the digital transformation of government services. Using OSS software can dramatically speed up the development and deployment of digital services, enabling organisations to be more agile, take more risks and iterate their services based on real-world insight and feedback.

A subject that has received less attention is how this has contributed to cultural change within these organisations. What has the shift away from proprietary technologies and dependency on a few large technology suppliers meant for the team that builds and manages digital services?

Risk-averse culture can inhibit innovation

The old technology cliche that still has some resonance today is “nobody gets fired for buying Microsoft!”. Some elements of the technology landscape are indeed dominated by huge multinational corporations, and trying an emerging alternative represents a huge risk for the organisation and the individuals who sign their names to the decision. This creates a risk-averse culture that can inhibit innovation and stifle creativity.

However, there are increasingly significant parts of the technology mix where OSS has leveraged its inherent strengths to establish competitive advantage and even dominant positions.

Examples include:

  • Web content management systems (WCMS) with solutions like Drupal
  • Web search engine technologies like Apache Solr and Elasticsearch
  • Front-end frameworks for web and mobile applications like Next.js

As these OSS solutions have emerged to become competitive and even dominant choices in the tech stack, it has created more choices for CTOs and decision-makers, with the consequence of reducing the risk of innovation. Furthermore, as the cost of failure decreases, the appetite to try new and creative solutions increases, accelerating digital transformation.

Building skills & nurturing talent

An essential part of OSS is the contribution of communities of developers, designers, and digital experts of all disciplines. This has two important impacts on organisations that use those technologies:

  1. It is easier for them to build teams with expertise in those technologies, making them less dependent on commercial suppliers for the development of digital services
  2. It empowers them to become ‘makers’ of technology as well as ‘takers.’

The ability to build the skills within public sector teams to design, develop and operate digital services is transformative in terms of using taxpayer’s money. Still, equally transformative is the impact on nurturing talent. Simplistically, if digital services can be built using freely available tools combined with individuals who possess the skills to use those tools, why wouldn’t an organisation seek to build a team with those skills? This idea leads to more creative ways to achieve that goal, including retraining and apprenticeships. No longer is technology seen as just ‘something bought’ but increasingly as ‘something built’.

The concept of ‘maker’ and ‘takers’ is perhaps less simplistic but can potentially transform public sector culture in far-reaching ways. It hinges on a sense of community, common purpose, and collaboration. A great example of this in action is LocalGov Drupal, a web publishing platform “created by councils, for councils”.

I have written about LocalGov Drupal before, and it has since grown into a collaboration of 33 councils with varying skills and resources within their teams. In the most direct sense, they are both the makers and the takers of the platform. Participating councils like the London Borough of Waltham Forest have built their public-facing website using the platform and contributed key developments like the site search functionality.

Encouraging organisations to ‘be open and use open source’

OSS already has an important place in government digital strategy. The UK Government Technology Code of Practice encourages organisations to ‘be open and use open source, which is increasingly being adopted across most central, arm’s length and local government organisations. However, I believe the cultural impact of this technology shift is still very much in its infancy. The more OSS is used, the more the ethos of community and collaboration that underpins it will penetrate the organisations that use it. We will see more teams seeking to build skills around those technologies, which will create a shared sense of purpose around building and improving them. This virtuous circle benefits public sector teams, citizens, and taxpayers.

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