Earlier this year, Croatian political party Sustainable Development of Croatia (ORaH) published a new policy that encourages the government to pursue open source solutions, addresses the dangers of vendor lock-in, and insists on open document standards. Best of all, they did it the open source way.
Croatia is newest member of the European Union and has an economy that's largely driven by tourism. In IT, Croatia's largest export is brains: young and not-so-young engineers leave the country to work for companies all around the world. Why? With an unemployment rate of 15.3%, Croatia's economy is one of the weakest in the EU. In Croatian startup incubators, new entrepreneurs are taught "if you want to succeed, you have to leave."
Despite this, the Croatian open source community is rather active. There's a number of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, and the Association of Linux Users, which boasts more than 3,000 members, is one of the largest.
Linux and open source stacks are well established in Croatian industry and academia—empty wallets make free software even more attractive. Despite this, most Croatian government agencies have failed to recognize the benefits of open source software.
OraH wants to change that.
ORaH's plan for information society
On May 3, 2015, ORaH published the Policy of Information Society and called for a public discussion.
Though ORaH holds just one seat in EU parliament and two in Croatian parliament, this policy is still significant: it's an election year, and politicians and parties often "borrow" statements and even entire policies from one another. To my knowledge, there isn't another party in the EU with an IT-related policy—not even the Pirate Party.
As I was reading through the document, I was pleasantly surprised to see things like open source, open standards, and open document formats mentioned again and again. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Croatia's vendor lock-in problem is identified.
Pension fund lock-in
The Croatian pension fund has a mainfame with a network database. You may have heard of network databases, as they are often mentioned when teaching databases. (First there were files, then record managers, then network databases, and then came relational databases, the ones we use today.)
About 90% of the code for the Croatian pension fund mainframe was written in PL/I, which stands for "Programming Language One." It was cutting edge technology in the 1960s, but now, not so much.
So what do you do with a mainframe built on a machine no one has ever seen, hosting a database management system no one has ever heard of, written in a programming language that hasn't been taught in 40 years? You turn it off and recycle it into scrap metal, right?
To do that, you first need to read the data. But uh-oh, reading data is not something you get out of the box. Nope. First you have to purchase software that turns the hierarchy into tables, then a module to publish it over network, and only then might you access the data as usual.
And that's just for starters. As you can imagine, scrapping the mainframe gets very expensive fast.
But the pension fund mainframe is just one of the issues the Policy of Information Society addresses and attempts to solve—or at least avoid—with open solutions. Let's look at some others.
Impact on the Croatian IT industry
The document is split up into chapters: analysis of current situation, strategic solutions, and tactical tools. Each one examines a different side of IT: IT as public service, IT as economic infrastructure, and IT infrastructure in government organizations.
The IT industry accounts for about 0.9% of Croatia's GDP. At the moment, the unemployment rate for IT engineers and technicians in Croatia is 7.8%, according to the Croatian Institute for Employment. There's either something very wrong with those statistics, or something wrong with current policies.
The policy aims to improve IT to 2% of GDP with export and employment simulations, by ensuring venture capital for startups, and so on.
Open source plays important role in at least two ways:
- The policy prioritizes interoperability and open source solutions for all government agencies. The goal of this approach is to stimulate the local IT industry, and a direct benefit is cheaper development due to freely available know-how and lack of licensing fees.
- Free software is very important for startups, and even more important for tech startups. Although the policy did not recognize that, I sure did. I own a startup and know how tough it is to raise funds.
Other themes of the document—IT as public service, IT as economic infrastructure, and IT infrastructure in government organizations—can all be summarized in one word: e-Government.
Efficient bureaucracy is a must for doing business, and Croatian bureaucracy needs major improvement. Various agencies don't talk to each other. They expect citizens and businesses to bring various papers from one agency to another. Even worse, it's much the same with clinics and hospitals. The reason for this is a lack of interoperability between these agencies' custom-made, proprietary solutions.
The ORaH solution to the issue can be summarized in a word: cloud. Implementing something like this is easier said than done, but my estimate is it can be done in 5-10 years.
That's enough on policy itself. Now, a few open things about how it was published.
First, it was published on the party's website so that everyone could read and comment on it by email. It's common practice for the party: publish, discuss, and acknowledge comments as accepted, rejected, or just as comments. In one year ORaH published more than 30 policies that way.
Interestingly enough, four out of the six authors of this policy are not party members. That's about as close to direct democracy as it gets.
In many ways, what ORaH is doing is similar to what goes on in open source projects: patches are either accepted or rejected with reason. Requests for enhancements are often ignored unless someone who can and is willing to do it likes the idea.
Open source community managers might stand learn something from this open brand of politics.
I'm a supporter of this policy, but I'm a bit biased—I like open source and I want more of it! In my mind there's no such thing as "too open."
Hats off to Miroslav Mađarić and his team for this open source project. I sure do hope to see the implementation.