A new not-for-profit lobbying group, Open Source for America (OSFA), is knocking on United States federal agency doors and reminding purchasers that there are often open-source alternatives available to satisfy government software needs.

William Vass, member of the board of advisors at OSFA, said the group’s goal is “to get open source into the procurement process. [Open source] is doing well in the intelligence community and in the Department of Defense, but the rest of the government is schizophrenic in its use of open source.”

The OSFA was founded in the summer of 2008 by such technology luminaries as Roger Burkhardt, CEO of Ingres; chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center Eben Moglen; and director of the Linux Foundation Jim Zemlin.

Vass, formerly a member of Sun Microsystems’ Washington D.C. team, is now acting as an ambassador for open source inside the Beltway. Rishab Ghosh, another member of the advisory board for OSFA, is also spending his off-hours away from his Twitter search engine startup, Topsy, reminding government officials that there are alternatives.

Ghosh said that many government software procurement procedures begin and end with one name: Microsoft. “When they put out a procurement request specifying Microsoft software by name, that’s a violation of the law, but no one challenges that,” he said. “Procurement rules are there for a reason. If the San Francisco town hall said, ‘If you want to drive into this parking lot, you have to use a Ford,’ that would not be acceptable.”

Foreign relations
The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), an executive office of the president, performs a yearly certification of foreign nations. Last year, the USTR took the advice of the International Intellectual Property Alliance and was ready to label Indonesia as a violator of IP rights, partly due to its use of open-source software within its government offices.

Ghosh said the OSFA is not just restricted to procurement work. In 2009, the OSFA was able to change how the USTR viewed countries that use open-source software, and ensured that such use would not effect the USTR’s findings. Indonesia’s problems with piracy and drug smuggling, however, served to keep trade relations with the country at a tepid level. Calls to the federal Office of Management and Budget and Office of Federal Procurement Policy, which oversee U.S. information technology policy, were not returned by press time.

OSFA also helped to advocate open-source development policies for the National Health Information Network. That network’s open-source CONNECT gateway has allowed health organizations to mold the network interfaces to match their own internal infrastructures.

Vass said the challenge for OSFA isn’t always about advocacy; sometimes it’s about electronic spelunking within government agencies to find open-source software that’s already being used. “They’re using it and often don’t know they’re using it. There’s Apache, Linux, Java; all these different components, and a lot of times they have policies banning it internally,” he said.

Once successful projects containing open source software are found, they can be studied and replicated elsewhere in the government, said Vass. One particular department that has already taken to open-source software is the Department of Defense. That agency’s CIO last year issued a memorandum advocating the use of open-source software, and specifically identified security benefits associated with open development processes.

Vass said the Department of Defense memo is an excellent example for the rest of the government, but he admits that there is still a lot of work to be done.

“What we need is the membership of OSFA and vendors who have successfully deployed open-source software in federal, or state, or local government to give us the product name and the name of who sponsored you in the government, so we can start holding them up as examples,” said Vass. “We need their help in talking to Congress and influencing their state congressmen and state legislature to advocate policies that are supportive of open source, primarily to provide better cyber-security for our nation, to reduce the cost to taxpayers, to increase speed of deployment, and to provide more openness for government.”