Cost savings in The Netherlands: Now you see it, now you don't

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A bunch of microphones on a podium

The Open Source Observatory flashed an eye-popping headline last week: “Moving to open source would save [The Netherlands] government one to four billion [euro].”

I had hoped I could do the dirty work of going over the report in fine detail and give you the summary, but there are two problems: first, it’s only in Dutch (I guess the actual problem is I can’t read Dutch), and second, the government took it down.

In a matter of days, the Court of Audit surfaced another report on the same general topic of cost savings for open source. This one has a wildly different conclusion:

“We concluded...the potential savings the government could make by making more use of open source software were limited.”

Interestingly, a headline from the Court of Audit’s own news excerpt is: “Ministries already use a lot of open source.”

This report, too, doesn’t seem to be available, except for a summary in English.

Headlines from outfits covering the story have read “Netherlands open source report says no savings can be made.” Discussion boards have chimed in stoking a conspiracy to cook numbers, government succumbing to Microsoft lobbying, and so on.

My take: Much ado about nothing.

First, I think we can agree The Netherlands has an issue with transparency, at least when it comes to handling this issue.  But, beyond that I doubt there is any behind-the-scenes-lurking.

When the Open Source Observatory wrote about the first report, they noted it was written by one person in the Ministry of Interior, and largely meant for an internal audience. Only after pressure from representatives in Parliament did the Ministry send over the report.

Report, here, may even be the wrong word. Governments do a lot of internal prospecting via memos, briefs, etc. just like any other organization. Similar to the issues I brought up about the relationship between the US Congress and its Congressional Research Service, government needs some room to think on its own. Not every document amounts to an answer that should be translated into policy.

It could be that in this case the Parliament caught wind of someone’s quick calculations and wanted to see the analysis without any word on how “official” the document was, the background of the writer, or the vetting process, if any, the report was put through. In all reality, it may be a “bad” report.

But, still, let’s say hypothetically its numbers and methodology are sound. What do we make of the Court of Audit report?

A separate Audit organization is a common function of democratic governments. They can perform audits as we typically think, in the financial sense, but they also do performance or program audits.

Auditors work a lot like consultants having to take on projects quickly and turn them around just as quickly. They’re also outside the organization, which can be good for impartiality (both conscious and unconscious) but bad for data collection and organizational knowledge. Although they often work on teams around related topics to gain some domain expertise, the economics just don’t work out to keep an expert in every area on hand.

Even smart generalist evaluators stumble when it comes to something as arcane as open standards and open source in procurement. It’s likely this report was generated by people working on a tight timeline without much experience in the area or even inside-knowledge of the Ministries on which they were focusing.

This is where we get this decidedly cautious and wishy-washy writing from the report’s summary:

“Regarding the replacement potential, we concluded that it could not be said in advance what part of a ministries' software could be made 'open'.”

In addition to:

 “Whether certain advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and risks are applicable in a specific situation can only be determined by studying the conditions in that situation and through specific market research of the available software products and services.”

Because this appeared in the conclusion section, this to me translates as: ‘We didn’t actually calculate anything.’

Even though I said much ado about nothing, every time a report like this comes out, (or in the case of the first Netherlands' one, doesn’t come out) it is still important politically, even if the findings are not. MPs, senators, representatives, whatever you have, love the ease of pointing to simple headlines: savings, no savings.

Which is why it’s important to speak the language of the auditors and program evaluators. Doing so begins with a cost-benefit framework: guidelines that point out potential benefits, costs, and conventions for how to calculate them.

Good reports start out with a general review of the literature, who’s already done and found what. It’s imperative to cite and work from, or justify the departure from, existing frameworks.

That’s what we’re missing. There are frameworks for cost-benefit analysis of environmental issues, juvenile justice programs and so on, but we revert to ROI or TCO when it comes to software. Government procurement is and should be discussed in terms much bigger than cost savings.

The way to improve reports like these in the future is not necessarily to accuse of wrong-doing or file comments after the fact, but ensure that the people writing them have a helpful resource from which to work.

I’ll stop throwing ideas out and actually do some work next post, assessing the current state, while hopefully furthering the field a bit.

Art is the Research Manager for New Kind where he focuses on research and analysis for new methods of community engagement and participation. He's also a Government Fellow at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy at Georgia Tech and the Center for Innovation in Local Government.


Someone from Apple or Microsoft did some bribing methinks.

The report that vanished was 'unfinished internal prospecting' as you mentioned. The report that said open source had 'limited potential savings' was incomplete. It only took into account desktops in a certain department and then extrapolated that to the rest of the government. It sounds like early research into the relation between smoking an lung cancer to me.

IT projects by the Dutch government have a long list of notorious screw-ups, costing way too much and being disfunctional afterwards. Quite a few have been abandoned after tens of millions of investments: they could not be finished to satisfaction unless another hundred million would be invested.

As a matter of transparent governance they should open source at least these projects with custom made (finished or unfinished) software - it's tax money after all, so who owns it?

As for the general savings the discussion is the same as anywhere, a few bogus arguments about cost of training (anybody got training for 'the ribbon' yet - it definitely confused me?) and the usual complains about limited compatibility, implementation cost, unability to suddenly end existing contracts, hard to find skilled programmers and the relatively low cost of license fees compared to general maintenance.

Thanks for the details. Sadly, the Dutch aren't alone with their "long list of notorious screw-ups" when it comes to IT.

On the Audit report end, my point is that these bogus arguments that you point out, though indeed not fully credible, are no surprise given the general role of auditors and how they work and think. And how they think is surely not like software salesmen or IT project managers (and I'm not advocating at all they should be), but that's the 'information' out there.

Looking back over the last 10 years or so, I think there is sufficient evidence to place the UK way out in the lead for really expensive notorious screw-ups in IT. Nice to be a leader, hoping not many were following...

Hoping that this is changing now though, as the new government seems more willing to listen to a broader audience (people like me!) when askign about IT solutions; they also seem less interested in IT projects that are about status rather than effectiveness.

Both reports are still available online:
(Click on "Klik hier om het bestand te downloaden")
(direct link)

Best regards,


A neutral methodology was presented to the Court of Audit during their research into the matter, as well as published on and offline afterwards. Depending on various scenario's (new-to-the-organisation up to mid-life replacement, types of application and users), a more balanced comparison could be established. Unfortunately, nothing of this made the report, in which a pars-pro-tot approach suggests minimal savings for a unspecified type of application(s) and scenarios...

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