How Adoption of Open Standards Can Benefit Federal Agencies

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Governments worldwide are beginning to emphasize that their IT departments adopt Open Standards because of the improved interoperability, organizational flexibility and responsiveness that such an initiative can result in, and also as a means for avoiding vendor lock-in. As technology becomes increasingly an integral part of other disciplines, this new-found preference for Open Standards is driving innovation in politics, healthcare, disaster management and countless other sectors.

In keeping with the general trend towards Open Standards, many government IT software procurement policies today specify that products and solutions should support and implement Open Standards before they can be considered. However, there are several challenges to be overcome if this is to be put into practice. The reality is that, sometimes, Open Standards may not be available or are not mature enough for a required technology. Also, in some cases, the usage of a de facto standard is so entrenched that it is not practical to ignore it.

By adopting Open Standards, Federal agencies can achieve the following:

  • Introduce interchangeable components into their IT environments
  • Increase portability and scalability of their applications
  • Lower total cost of ownership
  • Improve interoperability
  • Gain access to better software products through increased choice
  • Reduce costs for switching and transferring data to different programs
  • Gain the ability to safeguard data over a long period of time
  • Reduce potential for unfair contract terms
  • Reduce lock-in to one system or one vendor
Standards Development

Individual standards typically are developed in response to specific concerns and constituent issues expressed by both industry and government. U.S. industry competitiveness depends on standardization, particularly in sectors that are technology driven.
Standards seek to ensure that:

  • Systems can be harmonized within and between organizations and across borders;
  • Different parties or entities can produce technologies that work together in order to foster mass adoption of those technologies by the community and to promote competition;
  • New players can more easily enter existing markets and manufacture new technologies or products that work with existing technologies and products; and
  • Consumers and users can be instantly familiar and comfortable with new systems, products and emerging technologies.

To effectively respond to the challenges posed by globalization, the emergence of new economic powers, and public concerns such as about climate change, and because of the need to stay abreast of evolving technologies, standards development organizations and the standards development process itself must be flexible as well as capable of adopting the most innovative and best performing technologies available.

Interoperability

Open Standards enable diverse products to work together. This gives governments choice among a diversity of applications from a wide range of suppliers/vendors, and leads to innovative technological developments. In the IT industry, standards are particularly important because they allow interoperability of products, services, hardware and software from different parties. Since the specifications are known and open, it is always possible to get another party to implement the same solution adhering to the standards being followed. Interoperability allows for better coordination of government agency programs and initiatives to provide enhanced services to citizens and businesses.

If Open Standards are followed, applications are easier to port from one platform to another since the technical implementation follows known guidelines and rules, and the interfaces, both internally and externally, are known. In addition to this, the skills learned from one platform or application can be utilized with less need for re-training. It is also in the interests of national security that Open Standards are followed to guard against the possibility of over-reliance on foreign technologies/products.

An interoperability framework needs to be put in place. This can provide baseline standards, policies, guidelines, processes and measurements for governments to adopt. The framework will detail how interoperability will be achieved among agencies and across borders, allowing the exchange and management of data and functionality. Combined with baseline audits of interoperability, interoperability frameworks can help create a pathway to greater interoperability through open IT ecosystems.

Baseline audit, mapping, and selective benchmarking efforts that are guided by a clear vision and goals make later policymaking more focused, effective and user driven. These efforts, if initiated with the early involvement of relevant stakeholders, will help identify systems silos that inhibit interoperability, and define areas where Open Standards are likely to have the greatest impact. Mapping standards means identifying all standards in use within and across agencies. An early mapping effort enables agencies to focus on making legacy systems interoperate and minimizes any disagreement over definitions that may impede progress.

Service Oriented Architecture (SOA)

Like in interoperability, Open Standards are the backbone of a service-based approach. In particular, a service orientation increases flexibility, modularity and choices. They ensure flexibility so that criteria and decisions are service-oriented and technology-neutral. They enable managers to combine, mix and match, and replace components without the expense and expertise of custom coding connections between service components. Service-oriented, Open Standards based interchangeable components give government organizations choices at the component level. Changes such as replacing legacy systems can be made without degrading the functionality of other parts of the ecosystem. Services can be built with modular components on different systems using a service-oriented architecture.

Improved Flexibility

By following Open Standards, governments gain new efficiencies from increased competition, access and control. Greater competition among suppliers, products and services helps governments maximize their return on investments and performance. Openness can also strengthen a buyer’s negotiating position since they have more options. This ability to choose not only lowers costs but also gives end users more latitude to set requirements and performance criteria.

The ability to see, use, implement and build from an Open Standard allows managers and users to exert more control while determining if and when they need to add functionality, swap components or fix bugs. By relying on Open Standards, managers can decide when to upgrade and who provides software support. They can replace suppliers or even implement upgrades in-house. Organizations can keep pace with changing technology, and become more efficient and effective in meeting citizen and taxpayer needs.

Other Benefits
  • Open Standards offer a balance of private and public interests that can protect IP with fairness, ensure clarity in disclosure policies, and promote reasonable and nondiscriminatory licensing.
  • Using Open Standards will also offer better protection of the data files created by an application against obsolescence of the application.
  • Open Standards make it an easier and, in some cases, the only possible means for local companies to participate as major players in supplying services and solutions to the government. The government can leverage Open Standards to mix and match solutions from different suppliers in order to give the local suppliers a chance.
  • Governments also benefit from the greater transparency that Open Standards bring to the IT ecosystem. This transparency enables organizations to determine the best balance between aspects such as protection, control, risk and cost. Open Standards allow government agencies to build on existing protocols and procedures, and to innovate on top of them.
  • As needs change or services expand, Open Standards can enable the evolution of a business case by allowing the future addition of components and functionality.
The Need for Building Awareness

Having a knowledgeable citizenry is necessary if governments are to sustain the advantages of open technologies, innovate and spur a society’s social and economic development. Education, R&D and training merit attention and resources in order to strengthen a nation’s knowledge base and its ability to share in innovation.

Governments must find ways to support and extend the work of collaborative communities, and where possible, formalize their role in a consultative process. User feedback, which often highlights smaller issues, may help identify new areas of growth for standards, evolve service-oriented approaches, test new designs or produce other innovations that enhance IT ecosystems. Collaborative development processes can also broadly impact openness in government and an economy, driving efficiencies, growth and innovation, as well as contribute to a society’s sustainability.

Open Standards are important to promote the wider adoption of standards and the corresponding development of interoperable and innovative technologies. There is often a degree of openness in the processes followed in the development of standards. However, it is the openness of the legal interests in standards – namely, users’ rights to access, use and share the technology embodied by a standard and its documented specifications – that is of fundamental importance in promoting interoperability and innovation.

In moving towards Open Standards it is necessary that the legal rights and restrictions that apply to standards and standard specifications are properly managed. In particular, it is crucial that copyright and patent interests are clearly disclosed to all developers and users of standards from an early stage and that the terms upon which these interests are licensed are made clear.

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