A new narrative is emerging in government innovation and it goes something like this: Truly great leaps in innovation are almost never possible with monolithic, proprietary approaches to software development, and many small innovations, when taken together, often lead to large, game-changing paradigms.

That was the message delivered by both government and private sector IT professionals at the Red Hat Government Symposium on Oct. 23. The event, sponsored by Red Hat Inc. focused on the importance of transparency, open sharing, and collaboration to the success of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative, as well as how open source software can help agencies accomplish their missions in a time of dwindling resources.

“When it comes to the questions of innovation, one of the most profound things that we have seen in the world of open source [software] is the power of incremental innovation versus the traditional big-bang theory of innovation,” said Michael Tiemann, vice president of Open Source Affairs at Red Hat (pictured above.)

“Many small innovations … is itself a very large innovation. And when people look at open source projects and the open source community they often overlook how these many small innovations really do lead to major breakthroughs,” he said

Open-source software(OSS) is software that comes with the source code and a license that permits users to study, modify, and improve its features and capabilities. Red Hat is one of the leading OSS companies and distributors of the Linux open source operating system.

“In order to innovate you need an innovator and that innovator needs to be able to make changes,” said David Wheeler, a research staff member at Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). ” And open source lets many people, from many different organizations, work together and contribute their individual innovations.”

One of the key issues for any innovation is modularity, said Wheeler. “We need to break our systems down to smaller pieces that can work much more autonomously and be maintained separately,” he said.

But the government has a tendency to want to find the one contract for the one thing that it knows it needs, added Wheeler. And it becomes “a big monolith. And it may have a thousand components in it, 900 of which could be reused somewhere else. But next time we go to contract we’re going to have somebody build another thousand components, 900 of which we could have reused from the first project. And then we wonder why it costs so much money.”

Moving the government beyond this self-defeating innovation paradigm has not been easy. According to Wheeler, the government has to date, approached open source as a consumer. Agencies have identified open source software components that they need and that they know are cheap and available for download, but they often pay others to support it.

But that’s starting to change in places like the State Department and NASA.

Richard Boly, the Director of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, said his office was established 10 years ago to fix what used to be a very hierarchical, top-down knowledge management system that “failed miserably” at the cost of approximately $14 million.

“Instead of going with some proprietary, expensive solution we went completely with open source” to build a suite of knowledge leadership platforms, said Boly. The central driver behind each project was ensuring the State Department could “know what it knows,” he said.

The Department started by building something called Diplopedia – an internal agency Wiki with 18,000 articles, 6,000 active contributors, and 35,000 weekly page views. “Those things otherwise might be locked up in a PDF but are now searchable and editable,” said Boly.

State now also has more than 100 blogs based on WordPress. The agency then developed a capability for employees to identify expertise within the agency – what Boly decribes as “kind of a LinkedIn within the State Department.” They built that capability using BuddyPress.

And while each of these platforms offer their own native analytics, the Department wanted to be able to do their own analytics across platforms. So they deployed Piwik Web analytics.

Taken together, these open source initiatives are part of the agency’s attempt to “change the narrative” from the Cold War mentality of ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share’, said Boly.

Nick Skytland, the program manager for NASA’s Open Innovation Program, said his agency is currently working on a digital strategy that is an extension of the Open Government Initiative. And while a large part of that strategy is focused on optimizing data and services for mobile devices, “we’re really interested in the concept of mass collaboration,” said Skytland.

To kick-start the collaboration process, the agency has developed a series of “Apps Challenges” that software developers can collaborate on and that could have a direct impact on NASA’s mission.

But for Skyland, the real challenges in government are not technical but policy and culture. As an example, he pointed to NASA’s current software release authority. “It takes us months, 6 months at the very minimum, to release software,” said Skytland. “We want to release nightly. And we aren’t allowed to do that by our own policies.”

And that is part of the natural tension between innovation and government, said Christopher Dale President of Colloquium, an open source consulting firm.

“With innovation within the government, there’s this counter requirement called standardization,” said Dale. And many of the requirements necessary to get the innovation packaged and ready for deployment to government may have nothing to do with the agency’s mission, he said. “That’s the biggest obstacle to adopting those major leaps of innovation. “