Why State and Local Governments Are Increasingly Embracing GitHub

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Connecting state and local government leaders

By sharing code, jurisdictions can cut IT development costs and better use resources. But it’s “a matter of cultural change.”

When the city of Chicago decided to publish open source code that could be used to predict critical health code violations at local dining establishments, they did something unusual with it: They published it to GitHub. The move, made at the end of 2014, was essentially made as a dare to data wonks to improve Chicago’s public health. By publishing code on Github, the city of Chicago hoped online strangers could refine their code and improve their prediction models.

Chicago is just one of a number of state and local governments using Github, a repository for source code and software project management that’s a mainstay of the private sector tech world. Overcoming a government IT culture that prizes keeping data in closed silos and avoiding unexpected complications, Github has slowly but surely been making inroads in the relatively conservative world of government tech.

According to the Silicon Valley-based company, the number of county, state, and local government organizations using GitHub has jumped from 30 in 2012 to 250 in 2015. There are also 300 federal organizations on GitHub, as well as a large number of foreign government entities. All these groups even have a dedicated contact at GitHub.

When government employees are trying to navigate GitHub, they send Ben Balter an email. An attorney by trade, Balter serves as GitHub’s government evangelist. Essentially, he works with open government activists to raise awareness of GitHub among government tech teams, and answers just about any work-related question that comes his way.

“I’m an attorney by profession, but a developer by passion,” Balter told me when I asked him about his job. He sees it as bridging the culture gap between the Silicon Valley coding world and government offices. It’s a big change, but he feels that using open source coding will reduce spending, make projects more efficient, and offer better products to the public. And if GitHub is evolved in the equation, all the better.

Balter sees GitHub doing the same thing for the government that it did to Silicon Valley: Cutting costs on projects, letting work be completed more efficiently, and improving the work of developers and engineers through constructive criticism from their peers. But, as he put it, “It’s a matter of cultural change.”

“GitHub and open source in general can be an incredibly intimidating experience for government employees,” he told Route Fifty. “Government is used to being the 800 pound gorilla and is incredibly hierarchical. But open source is bigger than any government . . . and is incredibly flat. This means you need someone from inside the community to walk you around, just like if you are new in town.”

State and local government agencies across the country are experimenting with GitHub and open-source data accessible by any of their citizen (and any outsider). In the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia Council uses GitHub as a repository for data from several projects, while the Idaho Department of Fish and Game uses GitHub to build open-source maps of hunting opportunities across the state. In a closed peer group, government employees share best practices “in furtherance of open source, open data, and open government efforts.” GitHub’s government peer group restricts entry to only those with government email addresses in an effort to regulate the community.

In promotional materials, GitHub positions itself as a productivity and cost-cutting tool for government agencies. GitHub boasts that government employees and contractors who sign up for the service will have an easier IT workflow, better communication between teams, and compliance with paperwork and budget thresholds. Essentially, GitHub’s argument is that government agencies which ignore the cultural divide and embrace open source will operate better. They’re probably right, but they also face a stiff learning curve on the part of government IT teams which come from a very different culture than Silicon Valley.

For GitHub, embrace by state and local government is an uphill battle. However, it’s an uphill battle which is gradually become easier. During our conversation, Balter noted that the private tech sector and government IT evolve along parallel pathways rather than being intimately connected.

As an example, he gave the federal government’s tendency to buy websites from contractors in a similar way that the military would buy a tank, rather than the more organic development processes used by private sector firms. He says that many times, forward-thinking individuals at smaller subcontractors (who have more private sector experience) can provide the push necessary to convince local governments on the virtues of open source.

Meanwhile, GitHub might be going into an unexpected area: Government regulation. In a first, the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget published implementation guidance for an IT-related act on GitHub earlier this year.

According to the Sunlight Foundation’s federal policy manager, Sean Vitka, using GitHub can “make issues more accessible to the public than the typical legalese that we often see in more formal contexts.” It’s a safe bet to say state and local governments might also use GitHub to publish regulations and public requests in the next five years as well.

In the meantime, GitHub keeps on accumulating government users. Earlier in July, the posted network security monitor information to GitHub, and the executive branch has become steadily more comfortable with GitHub. For state and local government agencies, the jump to GitHub might just become more appealing as well.

RELATED on Route Fifty: Using Predictive Analytics, Chicago Is a Trailblazer for Health Code Inspections

Neal Ungerleider is a journalist based in Los Angeles, writes for Fast Company and consults on the tech industry.

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