FWDThinking Episode 21: Public Digital and open source in government

Alistair Croll in conversation with Public Digital’s Emma Gawen and James Stewart.

All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.

Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to another edition of FWDThinking. Today, we’re going to be talking to Emma Gawen and James Stewart from Public Digital. They’ve recently put together an amazing report on what it takes to create the conditions for success for open source in government. And as you can imagine, creating conditions for success is far outside what we normally about. We normally talk about open source as a software stack, maybe a philosophy, but there really needs to be a whole supporting set of parameters and functions from leadership buy-in to an ecosystem of vendors that makes this stuff work. So, to dig a little deeper into their report and what it takes for governments to truly embrace and make the most of the open-source opportunity, please join me in giving a very warm FWDThinking welcome to Emma Gawen and James Stewart. Hi, how are you? 

Emma Gawen: Great. Thank you. Thank you for having us. 

Alistair Croll: So, tell us a little about; maybe Emma, you can kick off. Tell us a little about what the impulse was for this and how the report got written.

Emma Gawen: Yeah, sure. So just public digital overall, we’re a strategy consultancy and we focus on digital transformation, data, digital, and technology. And we work with public sector clients all the time. But actually, we started from the UK government where part of the technology strategy put in place there was all about adoption of open source and how to do that better. So, I would say we’ve always been supporters and we found an opportunity to work together with the Omidyar Network because they were looking to help governments who are having a bit of a challenge adopting source and unpicking why, and helping them get further in their journey and making it a really positive experience. So that’s where we came in. And we, we set out to do this. Although we have experience, we carried out a series of interviews with people in governments and funders to really unpick that challenge of what’s the difficulty you’re having. And how can we help with that. 

Alistair Croll: So, in the report, you have a bunch of different requirements or prerequisites. That mean that open source might actually flourish within an organization. And they’re outside the usual list of like, you know, make sure if someone knows how to use open source You have policy environment, you have in-house skills, you have a vendor ecosystem or an ecosystem of some kind, and then you also have this idea of sustainability. Can you, can you dig into those four James in a little more detail? 

James Stewart: Sure. Yeah. So that’s, as Emma was saying, partly drawn from our experience and partly from talking to other governments around the world. Where there’d been a sense that you could potentially drop in an open-source alternative to a previous piece of software and magic could happen that government would get some agility. We get better outcomes for citizens, basically never happens. And there’s a number of reasons for that. But the easier ones to identify are often the, the kind of upfront challenges. So, some people are worried about the security of open source or a procurement mechanism doesn’t support setting up a condition that you must have an open-source solution, but once you start looking kind of more holistically, you start to see that to really get the benefits people are looking for, which is, you know, much more flexibility about how they deliver their services. Tying the way, they’re thinking about technology into the public policy outcomes they want to meet. You need to think a lot more carefully about what you’re doing. So yes, you need to remove some of the obstacles. It’s got to be legal for you to procure people that can help with open source. You’ve got to be confident about how you do security and those sorts of things, but you also need the skills that help you identify what the right solution is to achieve your outcome, not to replace the previous way you did technology and you get some of that from suppliers, but you really need some of that. In-house because that’s these days, the core of your strategy, because digital services are at the heart of everything. And then to Support and scale that you need a different relationship with vendors where when you know, what we bought in technology was these big outsourced services where you never really looked under the hood of what was going on. Business models evolved to, to support that. But these days we need a lot more flexibility. We need to be able to get data out in ways that we didn’t imagine when we signed a contract, we need to be able to evolve the service because users are demanding something really different. And so, you need suppliers who are set up with that. We’re going to evolve with you, and we’re not looking to kind of get every cent out of the contract that you’ve got with us for the thing you specified five years ago. But we’re going to find a way to both benefit from meeting those policy outcomes. 

Alistair Croll: So, you mentioned security as a deterrent. I know there’s this perception that open source, because you can see the software itself, you can actually get in and find bugs and vulnerabilities, but that’s a very naive way to look at it, right? I mean, they’re in an active open-source project. That means there are many other people trying to patch those vulnerabilities. Can you talk a little about the gap between perception and reality around open-source security? 

James Stewart: Yeah, I think that’s right. That there’s a lot of the perception is around can somebody see the source code? And if they can, are they, are they somebody you trust or somebody that you really shouldn’t trust? But these days I think most people who pay attention to these things have recognized that every part of the software that we rely on in our society. Is in some way insecure. We might not have found it yet. But there’s no such thing as perfect security. And the more we scale up what we use, the more likely we are to run into those security issues. And so, the only way to respond to that is to be able to respond and to be able to respond quickly. So, to have people who are proactively trying to find issues keeping an eye on issues that other people have disclosed, regularly updating software. And also putting all the fact in the context of the risks that you really care about around your service. Because some things we call security issues. Aren’t actually critical and others are, you need to think broadly. Where we’re going with the reports and the sort of capabilities, we talk about with open source is really supportive of a much more modern security posture where you understand what you’ve got. You understand what’s important in it. And you’re in a position to change it rapidly if you need to. And that’s, that’s what you need to stay as secure as you can. 

Alistair Croll: So that word procurement is, is doing a lot of work in that sentence. It seems like procurement. Isn’t just like I’m going to buy something from a different vendor, but that the entire system for acquiring and selling and operating changes where budgets go and you move a lot of the dependency from a vendor that sort of gives you one throat to choke and pushes updates every week to a team that’s maintaining stuff and checking GitHub repositories and forking code and so on. Emma, can you talk a little bit about, about procurement and how that has to change when you move from a private sector, sort of proprietary software to open source? 

Emma Gawen: Yeah. So, you’re right. So, the first thing to say is that in a, in a lot of governments, they’ve got so used to procuring proprietary software and doing it in that big outsource model. But they’ve really forgotten how you might how, how you might insource and how you might have that capability and have control. So, it seems like a small thing in the report, but it’s really not an actually we recommend firstly just checking that you’re not automatically excluding open source with your processes because that’s, that’s really common. That is the least you can do if I can put it that way. But there was also an underlying need to change the way that you view risk. And James has touched a bit on this, which is that, that idea of a one throat to choke. I think we’ve seen time, time, time again with government projects. That one throat to choke doesn’t really work. Actually, you can’t outsource risk. If you are delivering an important government service or program, and it goes wrong. The people who become accountable for that. It is the government. It’s the politicians. It’s not the supplier, the supplier might get a bad rap for it, but actually who’s accountable: you. So, a sort of subtext, I guess, of this report is all about taking control back in small ways. And open source is one important part, one way that you can do that and that you can take that control. So, taking control, a very important aspect of it when it comes to procurement. Yes, it’s, it’s procuring in a different way asking different questions. And then also in this, this is touching on a later aspect, but running it differently as well. So, understanding how you’re going to sustain an in-house team to run this software might, might be different. And that’s, and that’s hard. And that’s why we created this framework because I think sometimes what happens is the topic is broached in a kind of an evangelistic open source is brilliant, it’ll solve all your problems. Unless you do this hard work. It won’t. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah, it does seem like, you know, the headline on open source is: it’s free. And then there’s like a big asterisk there that says, no, we just shifted a lot of the costs and responsibilities. You mentioned, leadership as part of the in-house skills. Normally when people talk about open source, they talk about the skills needed for a software developer to understand how to work in open-source worlds and open-source environments. And, and obviously so much of what we take, what we think of today as commercial software is actually running on open source. I mean, all of the big cloud providers are running on open-source code. They’re just charging for it like a rented product. If you had a day to train a traditional senior executive in governments on how to think about open source so that they could lead a transition to open source or at least the ability to run open source within their organizations, what would you, what would be hardest to untrain them? Like what would be hardest to, what would be the preconceived notions they have that you would need to spend the most time sort of resetting?

Emma Gawen: I’ll get that one first, which is just to say, I mean, often the preconception is that they’re responsible at all. We still see this attitude, that technology is someone else’s problem, someone else’s thing to solve. And you see this really harmful divide between the technology organization and the business. You know, digital services are our business now, and that I feel like I’ve been having that conversation for years and you still come across people to whom that is a complete revelation and a lock on their worldview. So, I know it’s not directly about open source, but actually that for me is the one thing I’d want to spend all my time on. 

Alistair Croll: Simply making them understand that they are responsible for technologies, it’s not someone else’s issue.

Emma Gawen: Yes. Yes. 

Alistair Croll: James, how about you? 

James Stewart: Yeah, I think there’s the other thing I think it’s so important is the sort of iterative, experimental mindset of how you start on things, because the typical way of doing things in any large organization, particularly governments, is we start with a detailed plan that assumes we know the right thing to do. And. Whether it’s about open source or really any other aspects of successful digital delivery starting by stating the outcomes you want to achieve and the assumptions that are baked into those and then equipping a team to go and explore it is kind of the first thing. And that’s the context in which I see, then being able to say, okay, how can open source help us do that quickly? And then scale based on what we learn. So usually start with that kind of outcomes and iterative thinking before getting into details of open source. 

Alistair Croll: I’m going to get a little philosophical, but the other day I was listening to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast and he was talking about how lawyers’ study for their exams. And there’s a test in the US called the LSATs and you have two or three hours to take the test. It’s very time constrained. There’s no way you can finish the test in time. And so, it’s all about how quickly you can parse the work that needs to be done and figure it out quickly and so on. And what he found, what researchers have found, is that when you give the test to students without a time constraint, different students do much better. In other words, we are implicitly, solving for lawyers who can think quickly rather than thoughtfully. We’re solving for people who can triage fast rather than triage well. And at the same time, it seems like there are these implicit assumptions in IT where we talk about the ability in government, we’ve solved for a model where I’m going to define the thing entirely using sort of waterfall, traditional approaches, and then I’m going to build it, and if it isn’t exactly what I said, you can get mad at me. And I think we discussed this at FWD50, a couple of years ago when we said, you know, software is not a battleship. I mean, if you design a battleship and launch it, it’s very hard to go out and change the whole, once it’s afloat. Whereas software it’s as easy as forking the code, pushing an update, you know, creating a second version people can try out because atoms aren’t bits. And it seems like what you just said about people having this assumption that you have to define everything upfront rather than teaching people that it is an opportunity to iterate and to get it right. And don’t yell at me for the first version, because that was just how we found out what we should have built in the first place. Is a very different mindset, but it’s not just the civil servant that thinks like that it comes all the way from politics and politicians making promises and being held accountable to that rather than being able to say, well, we’re not sure yet. How do you think we change the discourse around government? To say that government is iterating and the things we can do to make the public more aware that this is an iterative process of getting towards a solution and the first version isn’t going to be perfect.

James Stewart: Yeah. So that is the big, the big political challenge of this. And I think where we’ve seen it is work is partly in the wake of failure. So, most governments have massive failures of IT program delivery in their recent past, and often the ones who do the best in shifting the culture are the ones that kind of, whether because they want to or because they have to, hold their hands up to that. So, in the UK, the work that we did with setting up a government digital service came after some major overspends on failed health reform IT programs. And that did create a context where you could kind of say the old way isn’t working and gave a bit of freedom to say and then we need to be more creative in how we do this. But often if you get this right, you can claim smaller successes more quickly. And there’s something about shifting that from, we can make big, bold promises, but you won’t see anything actually tangible for several years to we can state our intent, because we need to do that. That’s what being a politician is a big part of. Then we can show small steps towards success more regularly and celebrate them. And I think a lot of the best. So, we push teams we work with, to work as openly as possible. And there’s lots of reasons for that. But one is that celebrating the small successes along the way, shifts the narrative and shows that kind of this works. And there are loads of things to celebrate and build political capital off. Not just that did I, over five years deliver that hundreds of millions of dollars program. 

Alistair Croll: Emma, when, we talk about this stuff we’re getting close to sort of product management thinking. And I know as a product manager, having worked in the private sector, that the product management in the private sector is very different because I build something and I want to keep it to myself. It becomes proprietary to me as a company. It’s my IP. It’s my differentiated advantage in the public sector. If I build something, then I can share with others, the COVID alert app that was built and then distributed and forth. And reused by many different jurisdictions is an example of that. It seems to me like an underappreciated aspect of open source is that, you know, the governments of the world are the largest IT buyers in the world. And if they were to agree on a set of things, presumably there’s an 80/20 rule where 80% of the features that citizens required are in 20% of the software. And if the governments of the world could just share that 20% of the software, the world will be a lot better and you’d be able to get economies of scale around open source. So, it does seem to me like thinking like a public sector product manager, you’re much more interested in repurposing, reuse partnerships across jurisdictions. APIs that are compatible all those kinds of things. And that’s a much bigger remit than: Hey, I’m using Apache. Like how do you shift that mindset. And what have you seen in terms of the sharing of this open-source stuff so that you are collaborating with other jurisdictions? Does that work well, or does it tend to go back into fiefdoms and silos?

Emma Gawen: There’s a lot to unpick in there, Alistair, a lot of interesting thoughts. So, I would say that you know, you said there’s an 80/20 rule. I mean the 20% is a bit that gets you and actually governments can’t help but bespoke. And that’s, that’s partly in the nature of the fact that context is everything. That’s partly in the nature of the fact that as you said earlier actually, we tend to be politics driven and actually a small announcement here, or a policy change there can take something that might work perfectly off the shelf to something that needs, you know, months of tweaking and bespoking. So, you know, an example that I thought was quite interesting yesterday is we had an announcement in our government about funding social care and putting it as an additional, so essentially a new tax. And the minister came out and he said, oh, that’s going to be on payslips by 2023. And that minister will get maybe a day of news coverage out of that announcement. And the work to put that line on payslips is going to take the work of teams for the next three years. And that tends to be, that is sort of a perfect example of the root of why things up end up being a little more bespoke than you might hope they should be. But to move on to the second part of your question, which is actually where things have worked successfully and been shared. It tends to be where countries can get together and actually really formalize what their strategic objectives are, together. Like going back to what James said earlier about what your objectives are for adopting open source. And if you can get those aligned at a country-to-country level, then actually what the product delivery underneath that is, can flow from that. And we’ve seen that particularly in Nordic countries in Norway, Estonia, they have successful software collaborations because they’ve solved it at a governance level, not just software level. And the other example, which has been quite different and more organic would be GOV.UK Notify where that particular piece of software, where you know about delivery of notifications across different services was taken from Canada to the UK. And actually, that was bottom up more about individuals demonstrating that something worked and then getting it to have adoption. So, there’s sort of two models that can make it work. 

Alistair Croll: I had a chat with one of the folks from AWS, Amazon is one of the sponsors for FWD50. And we talked a lot about the sort of Amazon philosophy, internal philosophy, that has given them the ability to scale. And, you know, obviously people have heard Jeff Bezos say it’s still day one, the idea of a two-pizza team, which is like, don’t have a group working on a thing that can’t be fed by two pizzas. Now they don’t get into the specifics of what size of pizza. But the underlying idea is pretty simple. Amazon S3, which was the first AWS service simply said, if you give me an object, a file, I will give you a URL. And if you give me a URL, I’ll give you the object back and that’s all it did, right? Like it was very, very simple. Obviously, there was some authentication to make sure you allowed to have the file, but it did those things very, very simply, very, very fast. And that was a good building block. And then they said, okay, we’re going to create EC2, which will take that file from S3 and if it’s a machine, we can spin up as a virtual machine. We’ll spin it up and tear it down. And they now have over 200 of these services from cloud front ends to notification systems, to real-time data parsing like Kinesis and stuff. Like it’s a pretty big library. While we can’t get governments to build open source and share it. As you said, for a number of reasons, which are that, that the devil’s in the 20% that you have to customize, it does seem to me like we can build a bunch of these fundamental building block component services. And I know in addition to notify this publish and subscribe. There’s forms. And if for example, there’s a turnkey forms tool, similar to Google Forms or Typeform or something like that. But it’s compatible with accessibility and it’s multi-lingual and all the other things government needs, then you can just go use the forms tool, use the authentication tool, use the storage tool and build stuff much more quickly. So, it seems to me like this is more than just. Open source. It’s a stack of open services that then make it much easier to build on top of, are you seeing governments putting that architecture together or are they still looking at open sources as largely a monolithic thing? 

James Stewart: I think it varies dramatically from government to government. So those who started to build more in-house talent and focus on shaping digital teams are quite well set up for that kind of an ecosystem and kind of adopting that kind of core tenet of unix and the internet and sort of small pieces loosely joined. You know, there are lots and lots of great open source and cloud components that you can compose and they let you move quickly and scale fast. Those who are still much more in the space of we’re specifying upfront, we’re letting one big contract they don’t have a space to think in those terms. And really to get the value from those kinds of common platforms, common components, you need to break out of the monolithic. We’re letting a contract for one big system that does the thing we think we need to do. So, I think you can definitely see the difference in the pace of delivery. The global recognition that governments are getting. The success for their users of the people that have embraced that kind of much more internet centric, internet native way of doing things. But it’s not yet kind of a universal and there’s lots of challenges. So, when we were doing the reports, we were very conscious of the fact that if you’re doing this in the UK, if you’re doing this in Canada, if you’re doing this in parts of the US. There are big pools of talent that you can draw on, who are used to working in these ways. And you’ve also got relatively rich governments that can hire those people. In other parts of the world, you can’t make those assumptions. So that’s one of the things that with the report, we were trying to push out taps to the sort of funder communities and other places to say there’s some big, chunky challenges here. 

Alistair Croll: Emma, a couple of years ago, we talked about this idea of an open compute stack. That open source is just one part of that stack, but you really have sort of open hardware and the right to repair. And then on top of that open-source code, that’s running, and on top of open-source code, sort of open the services as opposed to ones that are built on. And then on top of that open data, we actually had folks from a variety of open, like open street maps or, Common Crawl other sources that are sort of providing open access to large scale data. Did you touch on open source beyond the code? And if you didn’t like, what are your thoughts? How governments can embrace the whole open stack like that and not just the software philosophy. 

Emma Gawen: Yeah, that’s a good question. So just for the particular scope of this report, we will focus more around mission critical, you know, open source, open-source services. So that kind of leads to a certain kind of service and a certain kind of problem. But I would say a lot of the same problems and kind of things to overcome are there, which is that you need to know, you need to know where the ownership lies and where the product development lies. So, I think for a government to rely on say a small open-source community, they need to do so knowingly. So actually, as you look up the stack, the question of ownership of resilience of how you sustain it, how you run it, they need to be really thinking about those things as well.

Alistair Croll: Going through the rest of the report. And I did actually go through it and it’s an amazing report. We’ll post the link for people to review in here. Sustainability is the part that we often don’t think about. I think the assumption that if you buy commercial software, you’re just going to get updates and it’s going to automatically be fixed. And at some point, you’re paying maintenance fee. What does it take to properly sustain open-source software and James, maybe you can start this one?

James Stewart: Sure. Yeah, I mean, the surface part of it is just do you have a team that’s looking for updates and you know, when a new version comes out, updating that and, you know, managing any dependencies on that. So, if some parts of the API software have changed, have the other components of your system been updated. And that in itself is not to be taken for granted. It requires a team over time who are keeping an eye on these things. Usually that’s what you’re paying for in the maintenance fee with a vendor. And it’s, just a responsible kind of hygiene thing with any, any software that you’re doing. And actually, we think that talking about that is a helpful shift as well, because digital services are never finished. The needs of your users will be changing the context in which they’re using your services will be changing. As Emma mentioned earlier, policy announcements might happen that shift things. So generally, to run a digital service responsibly, you need a team anyway. So having them also update some of the components of their system is not a big ask within that, but there’s a deeper kind of open source sustainability question, which is kind of how to keep the critical open source components live and evolving and patched and so on where, you know, there’s, there’s lots of cartoons, XKCD, and others that circulate from time to time about how much of our critical infrastructure across the globe rests on these small projects run by one or two people in some obscure town somewhere.

Alistair Croll: Yeah, some guy pulled an npm thing from our repo and took down like a third of the software in the world, you know? Yeah. There’s some poorly understood dependencies. 

James Stewart: That’s why we think that a much more progressive government approach that invests often through digital teams, but also through supporting open-source foundations and sponsoring a more up to date ecosystem of software vendors in that country, can have a huge impact there of saying, you know, part of our jobs as governments is to make sure that digital infrastructure is fit for purpose. And that’s not just about laying cables. It’s not just about making sure there’s a telecoms infrastructure. It’s about thinking about what do we use and what do our citizens use and how can we support it? So, there’ve been some really great initiatives where various governments have invested in like the core infrastructure initiative, an effort to support critical open-source projects to invest in their security or kind of challenges and competitions or reforms to the market’s governments address that support companies and teams. That are contributing back to open source. And that is the really crucial bit of making this sustainable for the long-term. 

Alistair Croll: Emma, when we talk about procurement obviously the procurement piece is very different. Like the criteria that you’re going to vet a vendor for open source. Is going to be, you know, a lot more on the maintenance side. And I remember my first time playing around with open source. I had no idea what it was doing. And then finally red hat came along and I was able to move those little cursors enough to get a system up and running, but it’s still kind of, it had nowhere near the ease of use of commercial turnkey stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about what what’s the difference between procuring private sector and procuring open-source code in terms of like what your criteria look like? What the process looks like? What’s an open-source procurement process look like versus what people are used to. 

Emma Gawen: I’m going to turn that around a bit and say, it really depends what you’re trying to do. And we covered this a bit in the report. You know, it could be that you are just experimenting and you need to roll out something quick. You need to iterate on it. And there are actually, you could, you could take some free available, open source and use it and experiment on it and learn something. And that would be a really powerful thing to do. And actually, we spoke to a few teams who use source in that way they don’t procure because that might be really difficult in a government. So, they’ll say, okay, well, we’ll go to this open-source options that cuts out all the bureaucracy and support it once they put it in place. So that’s one way it can be done. The second thing to say, though, is that, and this goes back to the, what you said earlier about this misconception about it being free. You should actually still be procuring a service. So, you know, there are lots of companies out there that. Actually, are built on open source, but are offering a service wrapped around that. And I think that’s something that we need a bit of a more mature conversation around it is okay to make money off opensource and for governments to buy open source on that basis. And actually, having that conversation, understanding that’s a viable business model is a good one. And actually, the great thing about that model is that it doesn’t keep them locked in because they’re buying a service wrap. They’re not kind of locked into something that’s on premise and all those sorts of things. Well, yes, they do still have a relationship with the vendor. They keep that inherent flexibility, which is one of the really powerful things that we’re looking for from open source. 

Alistair Croll: It does seem like, you know, we always put a clause in for escrow that if the company you’re buying from goes bankrupt, you get access to the source code. That’s just a normal part of software license. It just seems like you’re just doing the escrow up front here in a situation like that, right? 

Emma Gawen: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, and that’s okay. I think shifting to that conversation where you go, it is okay to make money from, from open source and you just get, like you said, having different requirements of it is a really good thing. The other thing we’re seeing actually is more and more governments saying to proprietary, you know, saying to vendors, if you develop code for us, it should be public property. And that’s not quite the same thing as open source, but it is really powerful and important. And something that we’re seeing as really positive development.

Alistair Croll: Yeah, it definitely feels like we’ve moved the software industry from I’m going to pay money for the code, in which case the scarcity and privacy of that code is valuable too. I’m going to pay money for the service, in which case, the operation of the services is what’s valuable. And that on the back of that shift, we are moving you know, from the sort of issues with lock-in. What if the code doesn’t work? What if the vendor won’t upgrade me? To lock in what if the vendor becomes a monopoly and exert some kind of onerous rent taking and starts to charge too much for their service and I’m unable to leave because I’m so dependent on that service. So, it seems like digital transparency in cloud computing it really changed the tenor of software discussions overall. James, how do you think the, can you talk a little about the weird dance between sort of cloud computing services and the open-source licensing world? 

James Stewart: Yeah, I mean, that’s a massive other conversation in itself, which flares up on Twitter from time to time. From a kind of government as a consumer of those services, point of view. I think that the, the important thing to be considering is about what’s kind of commoditized and well-defined and what is changing and differentiating for your services. So, sort of whenever we’re saying governments can’t help but bespoke, that sort of touches on one of the challenges there, I think where we see people using things smartly, they’re saying cloud services are great for the things that are well-defined and we just want them offered to us as a service that we understand reliably, scaleably. Open source comes into its own where you’re saying we actually are still working out the dimensions of this problem. We want to pull out some components, but the way that they’re going to be assembled is distinctive for us. We’re figuring that out where understanding how best to meet the needs of our users. So, from a kind of a, a user point of view, I think those things are really compatible. If you’ve got the right framework for thinking about them from a kind of the long-term sparring between some of the larger open-source projects and some of the cloud vendors that’s a much broader and more complicated discussion.

Alistair Croll: Okay. So we are out of time, but we touched on a number of different things that we can definitely dig into a little more. Where can people find out more details on this report? 

James Stewart: So, the main place is the Public Digital website. We, we blogged about it. There’s actually a currently hidden URL. So, if people watching this cannot find something as we have not advertised enough, but public.digital/research is the place to find all of the research work that we’ve done. At some point they’ll be on the website navigation. 

Alistair Croll: That’s great. We’ll put in the link here as well. I’m going to end with this one question I’d love to hear from both. You’ve both worked both within government and beside government as a sort of consultant and provider to these things. So, you have a broader perspective than people who’ve just worked in the private sector, just worked in sort of civil society and just worked in government. What is most misunderstood about public work within government and what do you, so in other words, from a citizen point of view, what’s most misunderstood about the work that gets done technically within government. And then what do you wish that government employees understood better about the private sector? So, what are the, what are the biggest misunderstandings on both sides and James we’ll start with you and then we’ll throw it to Emma. 

James Stewart: Yeah. You sort of talked about this before. I’ve been thinking about it a bit and not, not coming to a nice crystal-clear answer. I think one of the things that is easy to miss about government, particularly if you’re coming from a kind of startup or the tech sector maybe more than from the general public is. There’s two things. One is the really complex set of needs that you’re trying to meet. You don’t have the luxury of saying this is the customer segment that we’re targeting and we don’t mind about others. You need to be able to service everybody who needs that service. And that brings a whole new set of responsibilities that you wouldn’t have if you’re doing a startup. The other is the kind of institutional complexity and like the fact that you have centuries in most cases of kind of accumulated processes and practices sometimes deliberately designed often just kind of accumulated and that to make certainly the sort of efforts we’re talking about sustainable you have to start picking away at those. And that’s where a lot of the hard work is. 

Alistair Croll: And what do you wish that government knew better about the private sector? 

James Stewart: So, the political narrative is constantly switching on how government talks about the private sector. Often, it’s that the private sector doesn’t have all the answers. That we’re all kind of figuring out the evolving world as we go. But also, when I was in government, I often wished that it was easier for us to have conversations about how to balance incentives on both sides. We would often be quite naive when we were talking about suppliers, not thinking, not really thinking about what they were trying to get out of something, assuming they wanted to win our contracts. And there’s usually more going on than that. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah. The alternate currency stuff. All right, Emma bring us home. What do you think is most misunderstood by the private sector about public sector work and by the public sector about private sector work when it comes to technology?

Emma Gawen: Yeah. So, I think there’s a, there’s an interesting thing where most people don’t think about government at all and actually, they only do when they bump into a service that isn’t very good, which is unfortunate because they tend to kind of come at it and it will be sort of a, you know, an online service or something, which is a little bit broken. And, you know, they’ll go on Twitter. If the technology minded, they’ll go on Twitter, and there’ll be 50 tweet rants about, you know, why the UX of this particular service isn’t very good. And what they don’t see is all the cumulative policy decisions, funding mechanisms, and the things that have taken the government to get to that place. So it can be, can be really easy to sort of say, oh, the public sector is not very good and that’s simply not true. Actually. There are really passionate, amazing people trying to make things better, but they’re doing so in a system which is inherently quite hard and spaghetti like and complex. So, you know, as James says, come in and give it a go. If you think it’s easy. Because, because you do need people with a, let’s just do it mindset. That’s very powerful. But there are plenty of reasons that that service that you bump into isn’t very smooth. And the second is I want to give people heart actually, if you’re a government employee. Because having worked in a private sector organization. And you know, some of our work is with those as well, big private sector organizations. They too have bureaucracy. They do have rules that have accumulated. So just, just have heart that the work you’re doing is fantastic and keep going. 

Alistair Croll: Awesome. Well, that’s a great way to wrap things up. Thank you so much for doing this. I think looking at open sources more than just software you can read when you want to is obviously a very important part of building public environments and public services that are accountable, that can be adjusted to the needs of the individual governments. So open-source stuff is important, but it’s often not carefully thought through. And so, anybody who’s watching this and needs to make decisions about software deployment and technical services. I think this report should be required reading. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today to go over it.

James Stewart: Thank you. 

Emma Gawen: Thank you.

The world’s governments are the biggest buyers of information technology in the world. And unlike the private sector, where code is proprietary and software remains secret, many government functions are universal—so governments benefit from sharing and improving one another’s systems.

You might think this would drive aggressive Open Source adoption (to be clear, this doesn’t mean free software adoption, just adoption of software that can be read, and build upon, openly.) But that’s seldom the case, in part because the conditions in which open source can thrive are often lacking.

Emma Gawen and James Stewart are no strangers to government IT strategy. Having worked in both the public and private sectors, they’re now partners at digital consultancy Public Digital. Along with colleagues Emily Middleton, Angie Kenny, and Anna Hirschfeld (who will be taking the stage this November!) they’ve recently published a detailed report on how to create the conditions for successful open source deployment in government. We shared a link to the report in our July 22 newsletter, but wanted to learn more about why open source models succeed or fail.

In the interview above, we touched on striking a balance between open and proprietary solutions; the leadership approaches needed for open source to thrive, and debunking some of the myths of “free” software.