OSS Procurement FAQ: Part 1

This is part 1 of a recurring series regarding frequently asked questions on procuring open source software in government. Check back weekly for new installments here at civiccommons.org.

At the Code for America Summit last week, I introduced to the assembled community of civic technologists and supporters the Civic Commons Legal and Procurement Issues Guide as another tool in the reuse of “code.” It’s interesting to discover through the reuse of software code that there is an inherent ability to reuse another kind of code – regulations, policies and best practices of technology procurement. While it might seem that something less automated, such as procurement best practices and legal risk analysis, would not lend itself to being easily reused, in fact, many government staff are asking the same questions about the procurement process around open source software. These are questions that have answers, or at least, a best practice. But, the answers have not been easily accessible and able to be iterated upon until now.

Part of maximizing the reuse of anything is lowering the barrier to reuse and contribution. But, until mind reading technology comes along and makes knowledge transmission effortless, we’re tackling this issue with some traditional methods – blogging and publicity. The insights shared below follow from dozens of interviews with OSS and procurement experts, the review of more than 7o written articles and reference to more than 10 government policies. So, without further ado, we’d like to share some of the most popular questions that government staff have asked and where those answers can be found in the legal guide.

How does the business model of open source work? For example, even though the software is free, how can I evaluate the expense that may be necessary for further development or support of the software?

How can I procure open source and the requisite support services while staying within the spirit of procurement regulations? That is, my procurement regulations require that all software is evaluated equally regardless of whether it is open source or closed source (proprietary).

  • While in the U.S. we heard from our interviewees that typically the mere downloading of OSS does not trigger procurement requirements, in Europe, there has been some additional research into this issue. Read more about it here.

How can I write Request for Proposals (RFPs) that will encourage/facilitate open source developers and vendors to respond? That is, knowing that it is expensive and time consuming to prepare a response to an RFP especially for small open source software vendors who may lack the expertise and incumbent knowledge on how to prepare an effective response, how can I draft the RFP in such a way that will encourage small vendors to respond?

  • The Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR) in Europe has studied this problem and drafted guidelines on how to draft effective RFPs. Read more about it in the legal guide here.

What are some of the best practice standard terms and conditions for technology contracts?

In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more questions and discovered best practices. We’d like to hear from everyone though, and in true open source fashion, enable the contributions of all to produce the most tried and tested best practices available. If you have a question or an insight to offer to the legal guide, let us know below in the comments, via an email to our public discuss list – discuss at civiccommons.org, or register a Wiki account on the Civic Commons Wiki and begin adding your insights into our wiki today.