US public sector opens up to crowdsourcing

Public sector organizations today are under more pressure than ever before with many governments around the world cutting public spending by a quarter or more. And given the general trend towards modernizing government services as a way of enhancing citizens' experience and reducing costs, doesn't it make sense for governments to share as much code as possible?
That is precisely what the Civic Commons project aims to do. The newly-launched initiative brings together government bodies to share code, best practices and innovations. The project was started by the Washington DC Office of the CTO, data transparency advocacy group Open Plans, and Code for America, which finds city projects that could benefit from web-based technologies. It is broadly broken down into four areas. The first two are 'what to give' (which catalogues existing government resources, and needs), 'how to give' (which will enable participants to share resources with the commons. That includes not only code, but documentation, business analyses, interface design, and legal expertise.
The third, 'what to use' area of the project would feature a framework designed to help people select and procure the technology. It would help them to standardize requests for proposals, for example, which would dramatically enhance and shorten the procurement cycle for government departments. Finally, the Civic Commons will include a framework to facilitate the sharing of implementation tips and guidelines could help to cut rollout costs.
Apart from sharing the code from actual software projects (in what the instigators are calling a 'Civic Stack'), the idea behind the Civic Commons is to allow everyone to share their experiences about technology project development in the public sector, so that people can learn from others' successes and mistakes.
The potential of such initiatives is immense. For example, Minnesota spent $50 million between 2002 and 2007 to implement an unemployment insurance system. The state gave the five-year project to Iowa, which was able to implement it at half the cost.
The Civic Commons will be seeded with some exciting projects. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has donated the Federal IT Dashboard, a software application designed to help assess the state of multiple IT projects and key performance indicators. Any public sector organisation will now be able to use it, and improve upon it.
The Open311 API is another project that will use the Civic Commons as a repository. This API standardizes digital access to non-emergency municipal services. A standard API makes it possible for software written by different public sector bodies to facilitate transactions with such services in a standard way.
The project will also bring together a community of people to develop open source software solutions for making cities work more effectively. There are already examples of such communities. Sunlight Labs, for example, crowdsources applications designed to make government more transparent and accountable.
Open source code is nothing new, but sharing it among specialist interest groups in a structured way like this presents opportunities for increased efficiency - and at a time where the public sector faces more challenges than ever before, that would be a very welcome development.
Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.