I mentioned to a friend my wish that, as long as the government is spending money in hopes of boosting the economy, it would spend it on something that has proven to yield very high returns, i.e., open-source software. He asked “How would you decide which projects to fund? Most of the funding for software so far has come from the Department of Defense.”
My proposal would be copied from the way that universities implement their race-based hiring programs for faculty. Each department in a university is given a fixed number of slots that they can fill by hiring whomever they believe is best qualified to be an assistant professor. If, however, a department should hire someone whose skin is dark enough to qualify them as a desirable minority, that hire does not count towards their allocation. In other words, a department with one slot that has found a white or Asian candidate can still hire that person and a favored minority in addition. This way the university enlists its entire staff in helping with race-based hiring, rather than having one administrator at the top whose job is to find potential professors with the appropriate skin tone.
How can we apply this to open-source software and government agencies? It might seem as though each government agency were spending as much money as humanly possible at all times. Yet in fact each agency has an annual budget and is constrained by that budget. If we were to set aside a few billion dollars we could say “Any agency that wants enhancements to existing open-source projects or wants to fund new open-source software can do so with all of the money coming from the central open-source software fund.” That way agencies would be encouraged to spend money on open source because any funds spent wouldn’t come out of their usual budget.
How would it work? Suppose that a 30-person group within the National Park Service wanted a Web-based tool for collaboration amongst themselves and a volunteer organization. They find that a Drupal module does 85 percent of what they want. They would hire the developer of that module to add the features. Those features could be rolled into the public distribution or made available separately to other programmers worldwide. The money would come from the open-source software fund, no questions asked, rather than the Parks Service budget.