The Ministry of Justice’s commitment to code in the open by default has helped the department “hire great people”, the department’s head of technology has said.
The government’s Digital Service Standard calls for all government teams to make new source code open and reusable, or make a convincing case as to why this can’t be done.
According to the MoJ’s head of technology, Dave Rogers, and technical architect Steve Marshall, taking this approach seriously has led to the digital team writing “tens of millions of lines of code, in hundred of code repositories in the open, since 2012”.
This includes code for the department’s back-end systems, data handling systems, services for staff and some security-enforcing systems, as well as the front-end systems.
For software that needs to be confidential for commercial reasons or because it is awaiting approval, the departments aims to make it open as soon as possible.
Writing on the MoJ’s digital and technology blog, Rogers and Marshall say that there are a number of advantages to this approach, including encouraging collaboration and increasing trust in government.
They also say it has helped them attract potential staff – something of particular importance for digital teams in government, which have to compete with private sector companies that offer talented developers higher salaries.
“Our public code repository is an important part of our recruitment strategy,” Rogers and Marshall said. “Many people who have joined our team have told us that what they saw in our code repositories was part of attracting them to the role.
“They can easily see the quality and style of code we produce, the types of technologies we work with, and the kinds of services we deliver.”
Coding in the open also improves the quality of work, the pair said, which they put down to the fact the developer’s code is seen by developers both inside and outside the MoJ.
“This is a commonly identified psychological effect about the improvement of human behaviour when we believe we are being observed,” the said.
Rogers and Marshall also try and debunk the idea that coding in the open is less secure, saying they believe this gives a potential attacker “only a negligible advantage”.
They add that there is “no evidence to suggest that being open source makes software more susceptible to exploitation” and that many closed source software can be disassembled to reveal similar levels of detail to source code.
GDS said in December that it was working to encourage departments to make their code Open Source Software, rather than simply coded in the open. This means that source code is freely available for modification or enhancement by anyone, but also requires teams to offer more support.
Although Open Source Software is already used by government, the aim is to make “higher impact contributions” and give back to the projects that government teams rely on and use for free.
This will include user research to find out what code that has already been written by government would be useful more widely, and to then identify some projects to focus on making into Open Source Software.