Open source is ready for prime time. Are government IT policies?

As we discuss open source policy with a number of government officials, a remarkable pattern is emerging. Misunderstanding about open source persists. Often we found the need to pare back to basics. Simply put open source software is software that confers on users the ability to run, distribute, study and modify for any purpose. It is a collaborative software development method that harnesses the power of peer review. It also allows transparency of process to develop code that is freely accessible. The process draws on thousands of developers and customers all over the world to drive innovation. However, open source is about more than free software; it is also about the community that is crucial to its growth. Without shared knowledge and collaboration, projects will not keep moving. People who use open source can participate and contribute in many ways, including writing code, writing documentation, debugging and most importantly educating others. The ‘spirit’ of open source seems to be lost in many of the policy discussions at the moment.

Many initiatives, proportionately little traction

Open source in government has many supporters, and a staggering number of initiatives, including in Europe alone:

  • EU DIGIT’s Strategy for internal use of OSS at the EC which outlines “The Commission will continue to adopt formally (through the Product Management procedure) the use of OSS technologies and products where a clear benefit can be expected. The Commission will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a “value for money” basis.”
  • Joinup which boasts over 10,000 members and almost 100 distinct communities
  • Open Forum Europe which includes vendors in its membership

Despite these efforts, we estimate that less than 3% of all government workload today runs on open source software. Given the sustained onslaught on public sector budgets and the general climate of austerity, we expected to see a faster shift away from expensive licensing arrangements. So what’s the hold-up?

The underlying cultural deficit

Over the past six years, our team members have worked on a number projects with open source services players. These have spanned the spectrum from the very large such as Red Hat to the local specialists such as Sirius and Linagora, as well as open source teams within traditional IT vendors such as IBM and Microsoft. What these teams all have in common is the ability to take a problem and find the best fix. However, this requires that the problem is clearly defined and that the owners of the problem are empowered to apply the fix, without compromise or posturing.

In the cultural environment of large enterprises or the public sector, very often problems are scoped by committees made up of stakeholders who may have conflicting requirements. Add to that the pre-defined role of advisers such as procurement specialists and legal counsel, and the essence of the solution is lost in a sea of apparent non-compliance driven by past IT practices. For any open source solution to be given a fair chance, the ‘problem owner’ needs to step up to the plate and drive the solution process.

Momentum from a more open generation

The wind is in favour of all things open, though. Open data experiences are changing the minds of even the most cynical statesmen. Digital natives are asserting themselves in the workplace, in government offices and as citizens served by public services. Their approach works better with community developed solutions that iterate fast – something proprietary software models cannot sustain. So despite past challenges, we believe the future for open source in government is bright.

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