Here is another example of a government agency making a technical decision based on economic constraints and time constraints. The Washington Post reports that, when the government outsourced the building of the grants.gov system, the contract demanded full implementation within seven months and the result is a system that works only with the Windows operating system instead of conforming to open standards. While PCs are common and pervasive, as Gene Spafford says “Common does not mean ‘standard.’ That there are more Windows machines out there does not mean that Windows is the standard.”
Further, according to the report, “Macs constitute about one-third to one-half of the computers scientists and academicians use.”
The new “Grants.gov” system, under development at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, aims to replace paper applications with electronic forms. It is being phased in at the National Institutes of Health, Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies. All 26 grant-giving agencies are supposed to have their application processes fully online by 2007.
The problem: Although many U.S. scientists and others depend on graphics-friendly Macintosh computers, the software selected by the government is not Mac-compatible. And it is expected to remain so for at least a year.
As I’ve said before (What the Copyright Office / Internet Explorer rule tells us about government information) Technical decisions are usually driven by non-technical requirements and to keep government information freely available we must focus on policy first and technology second. By avoiding policy decisions and forging ahead with the technical matters of its Future Digital System, GPO is setting itself up to create a system that could be good technically while creating bad policies. (See also, “Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies”.)