As promised, the code for the federal IT Dashboard has now been released to the public as open source software. Any government can use it — for that matter, any contractor can pick up the code and offer deployment or other services based on it, which is a key ingredient for making it usable in practice by governments.
The IT Dashboard has been one of the best-known federal open government initiatives since it went live in the summer of 2009. It gives the government and the public an intelligible, visually-oriented overview of how IT investments are performing, thus helping identify projects in need of corrective attention or, in some cases, in need of being axed. In conjunction with the TechStat Toolkit review process, also being announced today, the Dashboard has helped to reduce costs by over $3 billion out of the $80 billion federal IT portfolio.
US CIO Vivek Kundra describes the Dashboard as an “IT accountability tool”. It’s not a project management tool per se. Rather, by providing visibility into project performance, it enables his office to oversee the thousands of IT projects under way across 27 federal agencies. But as Kundra says, “Shining a light alone is not sufficient. Once you identify problems, you have to do something about them.” The IT Dashboard handles the first part, and the TechStat review process handles the second. The Dashboard helps you answer the question “Do we need to look more closely at this project?” Once you decide you do, then you bring to bear all the appropriate project management and project intervention tools available.
(Vivek Kundra discusses the IT Dashboard on the White House blog.)
Kundra had always intended intended for the Dashboard code to be open sourced. When he first talked about it with Code for America, the Civic Commons project was just getting started. We immediately offered to help, recognizing the Dashboard’s importance both as a transparency tool and as a standard-setter for monitoring civic IT project performance. Since then, we’ve been working closely with the Office of Management and Budget and the contractor that developed the Dashboard, to release it as open source software. While we’ve learned a lot along the way (see below), their committment to creating a sustainable open source project, with room for other government entities and vendors to participate, has never flagged, and will stand the project in good stead in the long run.
We knew from the beginning that a high-profile project can’t be open sourced casually. It’s not enough to just put an open license on the code, move development out to a publicly visible repository, and call it done. For the Dashboard, it was necessary to:
- Carefully vet the code, comments, and configuration data to make sure that anything that couldn’t be released publicly (for security or other reasons) was split out to a separate repository;
- Reduce dependencies on proprietary libraries, and ensure that the libraries the Dashboard ships with were compatible with redistribution, not just with use;
- Document basic deployment and use of the system;
- Choose a license (easy enough in principle, especially for Drupal-based software where the GPL is a natural choice, but remember that the government has to sign off on any licensing decision);
- Create new sample data that doesn’t involve any sensitive inputs that might reflect on the agencies using the Dashboard;
- Switch the live deployment to the new open source branch of the code, and then test the heck out of it;
- Explain the Dashboard’s architecture to the Drupal community (see drupal.org/node/1100308), so that they could know how & when to highlight it as a prominent use of Drupal in government;
- Put the code through an extensive security audit with a third-party auditor;
- Prepare the development team for life in an open source environment (here it helped that the contractor had been using open source packages for a long time and sort of knew what to expect).
We worked with the contractor and OMB steadily for several months, with everyone constantly checking and re-checking to make sure each step was done as thoroughly as possible. Part of this political sensitivity: while a private sector company can afford to miss a step here or there, elected officials and their deputies have to assume someone’s always out there waiting for an opportunity to point out that things could have done better. But it’s also, less cynically, a simple sense of responsibility. OMB knows that this is a high-profile project, and that open sourcing it as responsibly and sustainably as they can will help set a standard for other government software projects.
Even leading up to the release, there has already been strong interest from other government agencies — in Chicago, New York, West Virginia, and even the Netherlands — in deploying the IT Dashboard for their own use. What makes it attractive to them is that the Dashboard sets a baseline level of accountability that many senior managers feel will help them detect problems early, yet does so without imposing too great a burden on the people closest to the projects, that is, those responsible for the inputs from which the overviews are generated.
Establishing such a baseline is a cultural act as much as it is a technological or management one. Once regular measurement is being done, it becomes much more difficult to slip backwards into complacency. There may be genuine disagreement about how to measure costs and return on investment, but that is a productive discussion to have. The Dashboard thus acts as a quality ratchet not merely in IT accountability, but in dialogue about how IT investments are measured at all. One can see this effect in the back-and-forth between the Government Accountability Office and OMB about improving the Dashboard’s accuracy: start with the GAO’s summary, but see the most recent full report for details — the main portion is only 25 pages, and even just reading pp 21-25 will give a good sense of the discussion.
You don’t have to be a process wonk to say to yourself “I want people thinking like that in my organization.” As open source software, the combination of the IT Dashboard and the TechStat Toolkit offers any organization the technical means to institute these processes, and is a reminder that transparency isn’t just for the public — it’s equally useful for the people inside an organization.
The code, bug tracker, and other public project resources are now available at sourceforge.net/projects/it-dashboard, and there is a live demo site available. The Federal CIO Council has now launched www.cio.gov/tools, aggregating all information about the IT Dashboard and TechStat Toolkit. The contractor will continue to manage the Dashboard’s codebase on behalf of OMB, and fully intends to accept outside code contributions as soon as we iron out the last legal kinks in the contributor license agreement (CLA) so the government can accept such code.
Give the IT Dashboard a try — and please let us know what happens!