A couple of months ago I wrote about an encounter I had with an IT worker that epitomized “customer disservice.” While the story was lightly anonymized, it was based on a real encounter I had with a member of a state IT organization.
This week I had the opportunity to speak at GOSCON, a government-oriented open source conference and got a chance to learn about two state IT projects a world away from my previous interaction.
The first project (actually, set of projects) was described in a talk by Bill Welty of the State of California Air Resources Board. His organization has moved pretty aggressively into using open source, and he outlined its extensive use of the LAMP stack to build systems for CARB. What I found interesting was his description of how they manage the budgetary process for this activity. He noted that his staff is able to build these systems (one, for example, is to track atmospheric conditions for a global warming-related system) without needing to request funds.
Bill used the vivid phrase “budgetary dust” to describe the fact that the funds necessary for these systems are so small that they fall into the cracks of the overall budget of CARB. He noted that part of the reason that his group is allowed the opportunity to purpose-build these systems rather than purchase commercial systems is that they have credibility based on on-time delivery of many other systems.
Another use of open source in a governmental setting I learned about at the conference involved the Oregon Department of Human Services. As part of a HIPAA-compliant electronic billing upgrade, the service provider (think doctors and hospitals) organization needed something like a CRM system to track service provider interactions — pronto. After discussing the options, the IT organization realized that the typical process of requirements definition, commercial system evaluation, contract negotiations, and so on would be unresponsive to the necessary timeframes. One engineer went home that evening, poked around the Internet, and came upon an open source CRM system, SugarCRM. He downloaded it and installed the system on a laptop and brought it into work the next day. After a couple of days configuring it, they went live with the system running on the laptop (it has since been moved to a more robust infrastructure).
What both of these examples showed me was the potential for open source in a governmental setting. Beyond that, however, they illustrate the impact a can-do IT organization can have — and they certainly made me feel better after my NGHNWNH (never gonna happen, no way, no how) encounter alluded to above.