Governments who want to digitally transform services with the cloud face a common challenge: how to provide scalable, accessible, and secure innovations for citizens, despite constraints on cloud-skilled talent, time, and money. Leveraging open source technology – taking the “open source road” – solves this problem because governments can use previously tested and scrutinized code, architecture, and technical designs that have worked for other organizations, including governments.
The open source approach is a secure and common-sense approach that cuts project timelines by months or even years by utilizing secure code and robust standards that have been openly published online at typically no cost, which you can adapt as you need for your own goals. In my time working for the UK government’s Digital Marketplace as the service manager, I saw first-hand the benefits of open source in government. Combined with transparent processes, using open source solutions helped streamline digital project execution, build trust with constituents and the global community, and save time and money. Now, as the senior manager of government services (GovServices) at Amazon Web Services (AWS), and as a teacher for the AWS Institute Executive Education Program, I want to share best practices for government leaders looking to use open source solutions.
Governments all over the world use and adapt open source solutions to accelerate their public service transformation programs. The European Commission is now on its third iteration of its Open Source Software Strategy (2020-23), with the vision of “encouraging and leveraging the transformative, innovative and collaborative power of open source, its principles and development practices.”
In Italy, the Ministry of Defence adopted an open source approach to documents in 2015, in a move supported by nonprofit organization The Document Foundation and Italy’s Agency for the Digitalisation of the Public Sector (AGID). In Germany, the federal government has made commitments in its coalition agreement that promote open source as a cornerstone of its digital modernization. Meanwhile, the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina is marking ten years using the open source approach. Since launching BA Data, they have published more than 300 datasets to support their vision “to make open government a way of governing.” Since 2019, the government has generated its developments in open source, using a platform called BA Obras to share information about 1,000 public works projects with citizens. In addition, India launched Digital India in 2012, and the agency has promoted open source solutions for services ranging from document verification to modern city planning.
My time as the service manager for the UK government’s Digital Marketplace, and as head of digital for the Race Disparity Unit in the Cabinet Office, strengthened my belief in using transparent methodology and open source technology. This means more than sharing updates and good governance. Utilizing and iterating on open source technology, and then in turn publishing your own adapted solutions, standards, components, and data to share best practices for other government entities and organizations, builds collaboration as part of a global community and accelerates innovation around the world.
My team built the UK government Digital Marketplace, which helps public sector buyers find the right technology and people to develop digital projects, using open source software. Before the launch of the Digital Marketplace, the government found it hard to provide the skills and technology needed to drive reform, so the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) created the Digital Marketplace to help meet this need. Since its launch, the value of government contracts for digital work rose from £180M to more than £2.8B in a similar timeframe. It also boosted economic growth because the government awarded contracts to thousands of organizations instead of a few entities. In March 2020, the UK Crown Commercial Service reported that 73% of the value of contracts won by small and medium enterprises was through the Digital Marketplace. As the platform improved access to digital technology and expertise, the Digital Marketplace accelerated overall government transformation. You can learn more about how the Digital Marketplace was created in the AWS Institute short film, Buy Better.
We developed the Digital Marketplace on GOV.UK over several years, and it evolved through usage over time. When the Australian government approached the UK for help with creating its own Digital Marketplace, they were able to build their version in just five weeks because of our open source methodology. The Australian government saved thousands of hours, which they could better use to focus on citizen needs and provide essential new services.
A critical component of open source methodology is publishing and sharing your work. This means that anybody can scrutinize what you build and spend on projects, including taxpayers. Taxpayers fund the work and services of government, so it is fair and right to share what we build on an open source platform: the data, processes, documentation, and schemas. Whether those services funded by taxpayers create something for citizens or businesses, everyone can reuse the open source code for their own means, and ultimately innovate with it in new ways. This creates a collaboration loop that benefits everyone: governments, organizations, businesses, and the public. In fact, the Belgian and French governments have supported laws to make sharing these innovations obligatory.
As my team was building the Digital Marketplace, we blogged regularly about everything we were working on as we went along. This transparency helped us receive challenging feedback from outside our team’s bubble of developers and agency stakeholders so we could make improvements. Being open in our process helped us build the right product for our citizens the first time – instead of building a project and finding out later it would not work. This transparency helped us iterate our service in real-time as we built it based on public feedback. We also earned trust with our leaders and colleagues as we took their feedback into account.
Many governments and organizations have concerns about how secure open source tools are. The US White House convened a meeting in January 2022, to discuss these and seek further improvements, such as the process for finding and fixing defects. Every organization needs to have their own clear guidelines, governance, processes and checks to manage potential security, legal, and operational risks. Open source code is open to scrutiny and benefits from community inspection and testing, and there are even cryptographic tools that are built in the open, such as Advanced Encryption Standard, which is approved by the US National Security Agency (NSA). However, you do need the expertise to assess what code should be closed, and a clear case of what should be restricted with secret keys and credentials, like unreleased policies. Teams must also make sure that code is robust and that dependencies are up to date.
Taking the open source road to digital transformation means that you don’t need to start from scratch. Open source provides governments with a blueprint to use what works, and open, transparent processes keep stakeholders in the loop to make sure services deliver success for their beneficiaries the first time.
Get started with open source through the Open Government Solutions repository, a growing collection of no cost open source solutions designed specifically for government services, curated by the AWS Government Transformation team. Check out examples of the research and experience of other public sector organizations with open source code for digital services, standards, practices, and more implemented by governments around the world.
Learn more about the AWS Institute Executive Education Program, which equips senior public sector leaders and elected officials with the confidence and expertise in cloud computing and related technologies to drive digital transformation for their agencies and constituents. Visit the AWS Institute for more resources for public sector leaders.