Promoting Open Source Software in Government: The Challenges of Motivation and Follow-Through

The Journal of Information Technology & Politics has just published a special issue on open source software. My article “Promoting Open Source Software in Government: The Challenges of Motivation and Follow-Through” appears in this issue, and the publisher has given me permission to put a prepublication draft online.

The main subject of the article is the battle between the Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft’s Office standard, OOXML, which might sound like a quaint echo of a by-gone era but is still a critical issue in open government. But during the time my article developed, I saw new trends in government procurement–such as the Apps for Democracy challenge and the site–and incorporated some of the potential they represent into the piece.

Working with the publisher Taylor & Francis was enriching. The prepublication draft I gave them ranged far and wide among topics, and although these topics pleased the peer reviewers, my style did not. They demanded a much more rigorous accounting of theses and their justification. In response to their critique, I shortened the article a lot and oriented it around the four main criteria for successful adoption of open source by government agencies:

  1. An external trigger, such as a deadline for upgrading existing software

  2. An emphasis on strategic goals, rather than a naive focus on cost

  3. A principled commitment to open source among managers and IT staff responsible for making the transition, accompanied by the technical sophistication and creativity to implement an open source strategy

  4. High-level support at the policy-making level, such as the legislature or city council

Whenever I tell colleagues about the special issue on open source, they ask whether it’s available under a Creative Commons license, or at least online for free download. This was also the first issue I raised with the editor as soon as my article was accepted, and he raised it with the publisher, but they decided to stick to their usual licensing policies. Allowing authors to put up a prepublication draft is adroit marketing, but also represents a pretty open policy as academic journals go.

On the one hand, I see the decision to leave the articles under a conventional license as organizational inertia, and a form of inertia I can sympathize with. It’s hard to make an exception to one’s business model and legal process for a single issue of a journal. Moreover, working as I do for a publisher, I feel strongly that each publisher should make the licensing and distribution choices that it feels is right for it.

But reflecting on the academic review process I had just undergone, I realized that the licensing choice reflected the significant difference between my attitude toward the topic and the attitude taken by academics who run journals. I have been “embedded” in free software communities for years and see my writing as an emerging distillation of what they have taught me. To people like me who promote open information, making our papers open is a logical expression of the values we’re promoting in writing the papers.

But the academic approach is much more stand-offish. An anthropologist doesn’t feel that he needs to invoke tribal spirits before writing about the tribe’s rituals to invoke spirits, nor does a political scientist feel it necessary to organize a worker’s revolution in order to write about Marxism. And having outsiders critique practices is valuable. I value the process that improved my paper.

But something special happens when an academic produces insights from the midst of a community or a movement. It’s like illuminating a light emitting diode instead of just “shining light on a subject.” I recently finished the book by Henry Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age, which hammers on this issue. As with his better-known book Convergence Culture, Jenkins is convinced that research about popular culture is uniquely informed by participating in fan communities. These communities don’t waste much attention on licenses and copyrights. They aren’t merely fawning enthusiasts, either–they critique the culture roughly and demandingly. I wonder what other disciplines could take from Jenkins.

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