Thursday Mar 26, 2009

Forcing Dutch procurement to be transparent

You may remember last September I published an interview with crusading Dutch IT journalist Brenno de Winter. During our meeting, we discussed the sorry state of ICT procurement in Europe and the findings from a research group that many tenders illegally specified products rather than technologies.

Brenno decided to do something about it and started a project using Holland's freedom of information act to force disclosure of tenders. I had the chance to meet him again yesterday and to record another dueling podcast (Brenno's version is on his site) discussing his progress so far, especially the collaborative website where. Impressive and unusually energetic and imaginative journalism that I'd like to see elsewhere.

[MP3 | Ogg]

Tuesday Feb 24, 2009

UK Government Endorses Open Source and ODF

Tower Bridge

Late today (UK time), the British Government issued a bold new strategy for use of open source software - and open standards - in Great Britain. In Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use, the government's Minister for Digital Engagement (yes, really, and he's on Twitter too) significantly revised the brave but toothless policy of 2004 "that it should seek to use Open Source where it gave the best value for money to the taxpayer in delivering public services". This is fantastic news - the digital tipping point is at hand. (The publication is also progressive in having nominated use of the tag "#ukgovOSS" in comment and coverage so it can be found and aggregated).

Like other fine policies before it, the core of the document asserts that the government

  • will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones;
  • will consider exit and transition costs as well as the total lifetime cost of ownership;
  • will pick open source where it doesn't cost more;
  • will insist proprietary vendors explain exit, rebid and rebuild costs;
  • will expect proprietary licenses to be transferable throughout government;
  • will expect public sector solutions to be re-usable
In support of this there are some key action items that include:
  • develop clear and open guidance for ensuring that open source and proprietary products are considered equally (action 1);
  • keep and share records of approval and use of open source (action 3)
  • support the use of Open Document Format (action 8);
  • work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites (action 8);
  • general purpose software developed by or for government will be released on an open source basis (action 9).

This is all to be warmly welcomed and encouraged, and I congratulate the government on this progressive step. The endorsement of ODF is especially welcome, and would have seemed no more than an impossible dream to those of us associated with OpenOffice.org and involved in it at the start of the decade.

I will be very pleased to support and assist in any way that appropriate. In particular, I encourage the CIO Council to consider switching from an assumption of a procurement-driven approach to software acquisition to an adoption-led approach. Doing so does not favour open source; rather, it levels the playing field so that open source solutions can been seen alongside existing approaches. Sadly, if we stick with procurement-driven approaches and try to force-fit open source into them, we will be gamed.

Sunday Nov 02, 2008

Public Procurement and FOSS

Alcatraz

I gave an interview to a journalist last week in response to the research that the European Commission's Open Source Observatory publicised in Malaga last week and the corresponding draft procurement guidelines (thanks to Roberto for the pointers to the Malaga news). I was at the conference but a scheduling conflict prevented me attending IDABC's session, which I regret.

Good News

I very much welcome the guidelines; as I have been saying for well over a year now, the first step to encouraging the use of Free/open source software in the public sphere is to facilitate the adoption-led model in addition to the procurement-driven model, at the very least to the extent of encouraging two-phase procurement. As Rishab pointed out (although not with the same words), there are also the issues of substitutability and the freedom to leave, which I believe it's fundamental for a public administration to consider.

Substitutability guarantees citizens access to government without being forced to trade with a single vendor in order to do so, and the freedom to leave ensures public administrations always have the negotiating power to get the best deal for taxpayers. The guidelines begin to address those issues as well - great news.

Concerns

The journalist went on to ask me about all the documented procurement violations. It seems that:

Of a sample of 3615 software tenders that were published between January and August this year, 36 percent request Microsoft software, 20 percent ask for Oracle, 12 percent mention IBM applications, 11 percent request SAP and 10 percent are asking for applications made by Adobe.

That's bad enough, and likely illegal in most cases, but then it also turns out:

According to Gosh, software tenders often have either implicit or explicit bias for software brands or even specific applications. Of a thousand government IT organisations, 33 percent said compatibility with previously acquired software is the most important criterion when selecting new applications. Ghosh: "This implicit vendor-lock in means that a tender, meant to last for only five years, leads to a contractual relation lasting ten, fifteen years or more."

Most concerning of all, however, was that despite this all being completely transparent and public, the Commission is doing nothing about it. They regard the problem as being one that the competitors of the favoured companies should address through the courts. That would be fine if the market was largely functional and there were only rare cases of abuse.

But it's not. The improper procurement activity is endemic, and until that's addressed any competitor attempting to act through the courts is likely to find themselves discriminated against even further. It's never good to sue your customers (as the music industry is finding), and in a market where the customers can specify you out of the running with impunity, it's suicidal. Moreover, it can take years for the courts to make a ruling, which means even more lost opportunity for competing companies - assuming they can survive the wait. Until the European Commission takes adequate corrective actions to address this disease, there is no step in the current software market condition that any competitor is likely to take to address it.

Recourse?

Given the scale of the disadvantage already present, why would any player want to make their position worse? In the report of the interview the Commission representative says: "There are sufficient ways for companies and other organisations to protect their rights." He may be right, but they aren't being used by the FOSS community and the reason is that the abuse is too extensive for anyone to want to make the first move.

I'm delighted by the fact the new procurement guidelines exist, but personally I want to see direct action to establish them - it can't be left up to those already disadvantaged. I wonder if anyone has the stomach for it?

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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