It was not a fair fight.
The advocates of making IT, most of them Veterans Administration employees working on that agency's VistA system, were always outgunned by contracting advocates within the Bush Administration.
Contractors promise to get it done quickly, and for a set price, so they still have the advantage. As evidence Recovery.gov, the Web site devoted to government transparency, will be managed under a proprietary $18 million contract given yesterday to Smartronix, a veteran contracting firm in Maryland.
It's actually part of a larger award called GSA/Alliant, which the Smartronix Web site describes as a "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) Government-Wide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) offering a broad range of information technology (IT) products and services to federal and Department of Defense (DoD) agencies."
Betcha you can hide some fancy cars and toilet seats in that.
A smarter way to go is described in the Washington Monthly this month by author Phillip Longman. Code Red describes threats to the VistA process launched over the last years by proprietary vendors like Cerner, which has already carved the agency's lab processes into its silo and now wants to carve up everything else.
This basic choice, between hiring someone to do something or building the tools necessary to do the job yourself, may be the hardest thing for the Obama Administration to get right.
Contractors have lobbyists, they make political contributions, they make big promises and offer "one throat to choke." Until you try to get your hands around that throat, at which point you're talking to a bunch of lawyers whose charges somehow wind up on your next contracting bill.
Hiring programmers to create an open source solution costs a lot less, however, and results in code that can interoperate with that of private vendors, because it's visible, transparent, and accessible.
We're not talking about "free" software here, as in free beer, but "free software" as in code that anyone else can use, modify, and enhance, in a spirit of cooperation.
This open source movement has been transforming how business is done for a decade. Giant companies like IBM have used the open source process to rationalize product lines, to work more closely with customers, and even to work alongside nominal competitors.
Isn't it time for the government to capitalize on this movement, and gain its benefits? IBM is just one of many companies making big money off open source, so we're not talking about a choice between capitalism and socialism.
We're talking about getting more benefit from the public's money. We're talking about getting the code as well as the work. We're talking about having the government join the 21st century.