Observing the open source public policy landscape over the past several months, one couldn’t be blamed for feeling optimistic. Government after government, it seemed, was stepping up and laying the ground work for public-sector adoption and private-sector growth of open standards and open source software (see articles on France, the UK, Portugal, and the US). Even the Vice President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, gave a full-throated endorsement of open source in late December.
But interspersed throughout these reports are stories and anecdotes of government policies being ignored, abandoned, or reversed. At a recent European Commission conference on IP and standards in open source, officials from the Netherlands (Joost Hartlief) and Denmark (Jacob Voetmann) described government open source/open standards policies that have been, respectively, only grudgingly or partially adopted and abandoned altogether. In one notable case, the city of Freiburg, Germany, fully reversed itself and returned to proprietary software.
Why are governments "talking the talk" but not always "walking the walk?" And what can be done about it?
As the European Commission site Joinup reports, Dutch IT journalist Adrian Offerman has produced a two-part case study of open source policies and implementation in public administrations in four major European markets: UK, France, Germany, and Spain.
The case study posits that "public agencies in most countries lack the expertise, the experience, the will, and sometimes the courage to purchase open source." Among the specific reasons that open source vendors are unable to access the public market across these countries: most open source companies are small and do not have the legal resources to effectively engage in public tenders or lack capabilities in project management, professional consulting, and support. Systems integrators (SIs) are bridging the gap in some cases, but the SIs may lack in-depth expertise in open source, and generally don't have good connections with the developer communities. This, in turn, limits the development of expertise and support for open source within the public administrations.
One country that appears to be getting it right, according to the study, is France. The report finds that demand by the public sector "is responsible for 40-45%of the French open source market," a figure much higher than in the other countries in the study. It points to a number of potential reasons for this, including:
- Smaller open source software (OSS) companies have effectively organized themselves into alliances and are growing into pure open source consortia, which has helped them access the legal expertise to participate in tenders and to better educate policy makers and ICT (information and communications technology) professionals.
- France has the largest open source market in Europe and demand for open source from public agencies is high.
- The French government actively supports open source R&D projects through so-called "competitiveness clusters," which consist of large, medium, and small companies, as well as academics.
- The government at the highest level not only encourages administrations to consider open source, but now also allows savings realized through open source deployment to be used to invest in in-house OSS expertise and participation in upstream projects.
The Offerman report concludes: "Although the situation in France appears to be heading in the right direction, open source markets in the other countries are still deficient. But the good news is that the infrastructure is now in place. Tender laws and policies are reported to be adequate. The implementation, however, still needs a lot of effort and a change in attitude on the public side."
As is often the case in government, good intentions by policy makers are challenged by entrenched interests, evaded, or flat out ignored in the implementation phase. Efforts to educate policy makers on the benefits of open source and open standards need to be extended to a broader audience to include public ICT professionals.
As demonstrated in France, business consortia can play a role in this. But those of us who have worked to put the "infrastructure" in place now need encourage policy makers to summon the political will and resources to provide this education to those who are implementing their policies.
The upside in all this is that support for open source software, standards, data, etc., remains strong and is, in fact, growing among policy makers intent on engendering innovation in their economies and savings in their budgets. The present challenge is that we have reached the stage where focus on implementation is as critical, if not more so, than getting the policy passed or established.