Fighting windmills: Open Source and the public sector

A new research paper on Open Source and government is out, with a few notable comments from Matt and Roberto, among others. Interesting read, but I have to confess that as of late I feel increasingly tired and demotivated when it comes to OSS in the public sector. I’m really fed up with useless forges, forgotten observatories and hopeless committees going nowhere, and I don’t see how the situation is going to change in the near future.

This is ever so frustrating if you consider how, from the peanut gallery, Open Source looks like the best thing since sliced bread for governments: vendor lock-in reduction, better adherence to standards, protection of IT investment, optimization of costs. A killer proposition, yet it’s not taking off apart from a few exceptions. Why is that?

Maybe we are faced with a cart and horse problem: instead of looking at what should be the goals for IT in governments, most of the current research is taking for granted that governments must use Open Source, and struggling to back up this claim. We should probably start asking a few basic questions instead, such as what we really want from IT in the public sector and how we can achieve it. I think that the basic answer to the above question is “more, with less”. We definitely want more and better IT, reducing duplications, providing information and making processes more efficient. As taxpayers, we want every single euro to be spent in the best possible way. It’s as simple as that: add some open standards on top to ensure citizens have equal access to government data, and Bob’s your uncle. Now, is Open Source the best way to achieve that? Short answer: no. Or at least it’s not enough.

Just look at the current e-government landscape: it’s not like there isn’t enough Open Source, it’s just that most Open Source out there, in all honesty, sucks (pardon my French). in Italy we have a plethora of Open Source projects, committees, focus groups, mailing lists and all that. Too bad they’re not talking to each other. The basic mantra is that most public tenders see a bespoke Open Source solution as a winner, which means something gets developed and dumped somewhere. No one ever picks it up for the next tender, because you just don’t give in to your competition, so the next winner comes along with his own Open Source implementation of the same thing. And the wheel keeps on spinning.

I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but this is yet another proof of how Open Source without Open Development can be a hollow proposition with little value. For one, there is little chance of reuse with Open Source alone: if a solution is Open Source in the “code dump” meaning of the word, with no openness to external participation, no neutrality and no diversity, it’s just a bunch of code and nothing more, and it will do no public good in terms of reuse and vendor lock-in reduction. Competitors will not contribute outside of a neutral environment (it took Apache to have Sun and IBM exchange code and collaborate), and lack of diversity will make any project die of thermal death sooner or later.

Please note how I carefully avoided the term “community” so far: as much as I strongly believe in communities, I also realize that you can’t just shove community participation down someone’s throat and pretend it will work: expecting public sector communities to blossom just because Open Source is cool is a bit far fetched, to say. Presuming that Open Source adoption in government will grow just because public employees participate in communities is just a day dream. What we need is more than a community: we’re desperate for a real ecosystem, run by the public sector, with clear participation guidelines under neutral terms, sound technical guidance focused on standards and interoperability, open development processes addressing neutrality and collaboration, and room for different value propositions when it comes to who’s getting to milk the government cash cow in the next tender. What we don’t need is preferential lanes for Open Source: all we want is solution to be measured using specific metrics such as reusable, interoperable and lock-free software. Open Source will then be able to speak for itself and prove its worth in the marketplace.

But I guess we will have to do with another bunch of going-nowhere committees instead.

Comments

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2 thoughts on “Fighting windmills: Open Source and the public sector”

  1. Hi Gianugo,
    Interesting stuff but it seems that your company is causing you to spend your Sundays focusing on work and the business rather than cooking. I’m not concerned about you, I’m sure you’re getting fed somehow. No, my cause is more selfish. I enjoyed the few months of cooking lessons and want to see them return. Maybe you could throw your readers a bone and dedicate at least one Sunday a month to us? Thanks…
    –tim

  2. Tim,

    point noted, thanks! However, don’t blame my company: it’s been a mix of golf season and serious (albeit nearly useless) diet keeping me away from the stove. I’ll be back!

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