Five Ideas To Get FOSS Into Governments

Why is it so hard to get governments (especially local government) to use open source software? Here are some ideas discussed during my keynote today in Oslo at GoOpen 2009 for practical steps various people, from citizens to policy wonks to representatives, can do to help get open source in actual use and delivering on its promise (and I know it's not easy):

  1. Fix the procurement policy. While a policy that says open source is great is a good thing, if you don't change the procurement policy it will have no effect. The best open source solutions result from a two-phase procurement process where the first phase buys prototyping and iterating using software on a white-list of approved elements that can be supported in phase two, and the second phase buys production deployment and scaling. If you have a procurement process that basically defines software as "something you buy a license for" you'll never get the adoption-led benefits of open source.
  2. Publish tenders by default. In most places, it's illegal to specify a vendor explicitly in a generic request for tender. To deal with this, many countries have open procurement policies, but very, very few publish tender documents, so we have a problem. Initiating a scheme like the one Brenno de Winter has in the Netherlands brings the cleansing power of sunlight into the process. Brenno uses Freedom of Information requests to secure tenders and then posts them to a wiki for community review. You could do that too where you live.
  3. Demand the freedom to leave. Often, the cost of migration is used as a barrier to use of open source. But the cost of migration is often caused by being locked in by an existing vendor. If migration costs are cited, so must be exit costs (one of the key changes in the UK open source policy). If you're not willing to demand exit costs are stated, exclude migration costs too. The longer you leave this unchecked, the deeper the lock-in will become and the greater the migration costs for new solutions.
  4. Don't focus on cost savings alone. Any vendor with a decent sales function can cut one-time costs to get you locked in. If you have freedom to use/study/modify/distribute the software you use, you can drive down the costs - freedom can lead to cost savings but cost savings rarely lead to freedom. Making this the rule is a policy decision that your legislature needs to make.
  5. Consider posterity. Solutions that require proprietary formats, DRM as an enabler to tracking, closed and NDA-only interfaces (and many more tactics) - all these things result in systems that lose the reasons why decisions get made and rob future generations of their history. Demand transparency with privacy. That's freedom; secrecy with controlled disclosure is not. Discriminate against offerings that use DRM, unpublished interfaces and anything else that your vendor won't let you publish without permission.
And your bonus idea for added value:
  • Use open standards. What is an open standard? Well, that can take a great deal of argument to determine, but a great rule of thumb is if it could be implemented under all available open source licenses and is actually implemented under one, it's probably open. And if you use the open source implementation, chances are the extra freedoms will help too.
Got more ideas? Case studies? Comment below.

Comments:

One I've suggested before now, which may merit external discussion - a political party is a smaller (and usually more cash-strapped) organisation than a Government. Get the Loyal Opposition converted to Open Source first, and see how much influence over Government IT they are able to exert when they get elected, having had a few years' experience :-).

Posted by Dave Walker on April 15, 2009 at 08:45 PM PDT #

Considering all that MOU nonsense (and EDGI) which is arguably against the law, I think one bulletpoint should mentioned the police/authorities. White-collar crime is part of the problem here and being all nice and cute about it won't resolve the problem.

In the news:

http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/janus-act-govt-love-for-windows/446771/
http://ostatic.com/blog/why-isnt-open-source-even-considered-at-the-u-s-state-government-level

Posted by Roy Schestowitz on April 15, 2009 at 11:53 PM PDT #

This sounds good! I hope the Minister of public enterprises & administration will read this. It's South Africa receives its full FREEDOM. Go OPEN SOURCE. Unloca ICT Solutions is here to unlock all doors that keep us from seeing the real freedom. Let's GO OPEN!

Posted by Louis Maluleke on April 22, 2009 at 06:16 PM PDT #

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