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Why Technology Neutrality Matters

The US government spends nearly $80 billion a year on computers, software, networking equipment and related services, making it the world’s largest customer for information technology, by far. This gives it enormous heft in the marketplace. The choices it makes have wide ramifications.

So imagine for a minute that it decided to favor certain technologies or ways of developing technology, regardless of whether or not those technologies happened to merit the preference. It would stifle competition and innovation by cutting off providers of high-quality, but arbitrarily out-of-favor solutions. More than likely, the government also would wind up ill-served.

But that is not about to happen, thanks to an important directive from the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget. It instructs federal chief information officers and senior procurement executives to select and acquire solutions that best fit their needs based on technology-neutral criteria. The directive specifically instructs agencies to analyze alternatives that include proprietary, open-source and mixed-source technologies. And it stipulates that all technology acquisitions must be properly licensed.

The administration’s directive is significant because of the federal government’s outsized influence on the market. But it also demonstrates tremendous leadership globally at a time when a number of governments — including in Europe, China and Russia — have been inching toward adopting preferences for open-source technologies or technologies that are free of intellectual property rights (IPR). That trend is self-defeating for governments and local IT economies alike.

Choice among technologies means access to the best and most innovative products for government projects. One-size-fits-all solutions can have the opposite effect of promoting sub-par solutions, which benefit neither government agencies nor the citizens they serve. If the goal is to improve the performance of government and create value for taxpayers, the watchword for procurement decisions should be merit, not commercial or open-source licensing.

Kudos to the Obama administration for clearly articulating the need for such an approach.

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