What if Public sector software systems were open source?

The building of and use of open source software systems in the public sector sounds promising. There are many interesting aspects to this topic.

The public sector includes local authorities, health boards, police forces, the fire service, primary and secondary education, etc. It can be argued that they share common processes which have supporting software systems, between regions for a common organisation, and to some extent between organisations. For example, human resources departments provides payroll services, a Hospital has numerous data-entry systems to support wards such as surgery and oncology, local authorities have systems to process council tax.

Such software systems are supplied and maintained either by in-house software development staff or 3rd party private companies. As procurement decisions have historically been made locally, common organisations tend to make different decisions between regions. I accept that there is a growing(?) trend which aims to share common organisational software systems between regions.

What if all public sector software systems that have been developed in-house or are to be developed in-house in the future where licensed as open source, instead of being kept within an individual organiosation & region? And what if 3rd party software system suppliers provided their products as open source instead of under a closed license?

It would seem that if managed well:

  • The public sector would then have an investment in software systems which it would retain the use of instead of being locked-in to arbitrary agreements designed to make profits for 3rd party companies.
  • It would promote reuse between organisaional geographic regions.

Clearly the use of 3rd party companies necessitates their ability to make a profit and their large investment in building software systems is largely based on the potential for 3rd party companies to sell them over and over to different regions of a common organsiation. The open source model does enable 3rd party companies to make money through being engaged by organisations to make changes to and/or support open source software systems.

An initial goal would be to make all in-house developed software systems open source as that would send out a clear message. That public sector organisations embrace the open source ethos and acknowledge how it makes sense for tax payers dollars.

“Next Steps… There is a need to maximise the returns on, and benefits from, investments in publicly funded software. The ability to freely share software which has been developed within the Scottish public sector or bespoke software funded by the Scottish public sector would be enhanced by making this available as FLOSS. Copyright of software, documentation, design materials, manuals, user interface and source code should be released under an OSI-approved open source licence unless there is a compelling argument why this should not be the case and an alternative licensing model proposed.”
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/04/10104126/0 Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Scottish Policy Statement: A Report by the Open Source Software Working Group (March 2007)

“One thing about UK IT policy that is beginning to trouble a growing number of politicians and stakeholders is the public sector’s sweeping disregard for open-source software. Such software, where the source code is readily available for anyone to read and modify, makes sense for the public sector. Employing open-source would represent a significant cost saving for government – the Conservative Party has estimated (conservatively) that we could save £700m a year if we directed our ICT spend to open-source software.

This is not simply because the software is often lower-cost: the availability of source code for government applications will mean that the market for modifying and extending these applications is open to all comers, and not just the company originally contracted in.

Commissioning open-source software ensures that the building blocks of the information society belong to all of us.

The government knows this. In 2004, the OGC concluded that open-source software was a viable and credible alternative to proprietary solutions, and should be considered, as these products are, on a value-for-money basis. So goes the theory; in practice, Whitehall procurement culture presents a very real barrier to open-source in government IT. This has a great deal to do with civil servants picking big-brand consultants they know they can blame when things go wrong.”
(04 October 2007, http://www.newstatesman.com) Lessons learned?

Part of the complexity in this topic is to do with the differences between local processes between regions for a common organisation. Taking a data entry software system as an example, sometimes this can be accounted for by including extra form fields which are only visible to those regions who need them, but larger differences can exist. Ideally larger differences can be addressed by reducing process differences between regions.

The one-size fits all approach tends to be problematic since this can be perceived as limiting creativity and innovation. It is possible to build an application framework for a data entry software system which facilitates local regional data items.

Another aspect of the debate is a growing trend(?) between regional systems to that of national systems. As user numbers increase between regions, economies of scale can be achieved when software systems are deployed nationally.

“Our aim is to encourage the use of Open Source Software by local authorities through knowledge sharing and practical advice. The content of our portal, as well as our one-to-one services, can help you economise on costs and increase Open Source’s implementation efficiency.”

Public sector organisational software systems tend to be bespoke. If developed in-house from a national perspective, would the cost not be competitive compared to the alternative of purchasing the equivalent bespoke systems from one or more 3rd party companies? The UK health service, like the police service, and local authorities are divided into over 50 geographical regions.

“Open-source software would seem to be a good fit for the public sector. Its communal model of development and usage sounds like a good match for the sector’s ethos, and its free licence cost sounds an even better one for its tight budgets.”
(13 May 2006, http://www.kable.co.uk) Open source software and the UK public sector

“…The use of Free/Open Source Software is growing in public administrations across Europe. What would be the potential impact on the development of the Information Society (including industry) if public organisations (administrations, research institutions, universities, agencies, public companies etc.) were to release software fully owned by them under an open source license?”

Open Ireland, an Open Source Software (OSS) lobby group, is calling on the Irish Government to develop an informed policy on OSS. This comes as a reaction to a recent speech by the Minister in charge of the Information Society, who said that the use of OSS could be too costly in the long term for the Irish Public Sector.”
http://www.epractice.eu/document/1452 (11 May 2004)

“On 30/06/2004, a number of US state and city authorities and academic entities launched the “Government Open Code Collaborative” (GOCC), an initiative that will encourage and facilitate the sharing of open source software among government entities.”
www.gocc.gov (Government Open Code Collaborative Repository)

“The OSOR.eu platform – particularly the OSOR.eu Repository and the OSOR.eu Forge – supports and encourages the re-use of publicly-financed Open Source Software developments, focusing on those of use to European public administrations.

OSOR.eu aims to support the collaborative development of Open Source Software (OSS) applications and solutions, particularly cross-border collaborations and exchanges of knowledge and software.

Project owners are invited to open projects on the OSOR.eu platform and to license their content or source code under a recognised Open Source license, thus giving a larger public the possibility to test and use their solutions, provide feedback, and contribute to improving the software’s quality.

Re-use and collaboration will increase the number of users and improve interoperability and sustainability, thanks to the size and motivation of the developer community. OSOR.eu will also promote and link to the work of national repositories, encouraging the emergence of a pan-European federation of Open Source Software repositories.”
www.osor.eu (Open Source Observatory & Repositoty Europe)

“Originated from cabinet decision of the Government of Malaysia, the Malaysian Public Sector OSS Master Plan was launched on 16 July 2004 to create and enhance value using OSS within the Public Sector ICT framework in providing efficient, secure and quality services. MAMPU was tasked to establish and operate the Open Source Competency Centre (OSCC), which is the single point of reference to guide, facilitate, coordinate and monitor implementation of OSS in the Public Sector.”
(Malaysian Public Sector Open Source Software Program)

“Linux is now more than a decade old. Throughout its history there have been many government entities that have decided that Linux was the ideal operating system to handle their mission-critical computing needs. This list gets larger every day. Here are a list of some of the more notable migrations to the Linux platform in the public sector.”
http://www.linux.org/info/linux_govt.html (Linux in Government)


4 Responses to “What if Public sector software systems were open source?”

  1. 1 Eric Yeoh December 31, 2008 at 4:10 am

    Although I see myself as an FLOSS user and advocate, I still believe that there certain systems that are best kept from the scrutinising eyes of the public e.g. military/policing systems for instance.

    Can you imagine if the missile control system software is easily downloadable from Sourceforge or some other public repo?

    However, for public services, by all means go FLOSS. It saves the public money and with the source code available, it allows the agencies to have better control and management over their systems. Besides, the data generated from FLOSS systems are mostly open standards compliant, so compatibility issues will be reduced to the absolute minimum.

    I work as a contractor for a Government agency that implements FLOSS solutions and one of the many obstacles we face is the lack of skills among the IT people in the Government. Most are just too reliant on vendors and out-sourced staff.

    Like their predecessors who went the Big Blue way, many CIOs in Government agencies just feel that nobody gets fired by going the Redmond way.

    I feel it is not a technical issue of why the Public Sector is unwilling to adopt FLOSS; it’s more of the user expectation; i.e. it should be just the same as the old system. While Web servers and firewalls are to a certain extent easier to replace, the same cannot be said if someone who has been using Outlook+Exchange combo.

    While there are many fine FLOSS solutions that can rival and replace Exchange, migration of data like calendar data will prove an issue.

    Office documents is also a sore point. The binary blobs created by MS Office is simply not a joy to work with. While there are improvements in OO.o 3 (tried from Sun and go-oo), there are still many documents with complex formatting that does not translate well.

    Convincing users and CIOs on stuff like freedom from patents and proprietary lock ins will never work. People will only and always see from the POV of cost.

    All is not gloom however, migration to FLOSS is going on although at baby steps but it is gathering strength.

  2. 2 Anton April 17, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    “What if Public sector software systems were open source?”
    Definitely will increase the efficiently!

    We design and develop web-based applications from basic database management systems to business-critical, end-to-end workflow systems. Our focus is on usability, ensuring all our solutions are intuitive, user-friendly and effective.
    By implementing web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX, web services and Flex our software developments are truly cutting edge.

    I think if the public sector think more as business it will be much better!

  3. 3 Marco February 15, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    “Can you imagine if the missile control system software is easily downloadable from Sourceforge or some other public repo?”

    it would be a good thing if everybody could see and report any bug in such software. Do you prefer it to be secret or buggy? Having the source code doesn’t having the missiles, or being able to control them. Come on!

    This said, the savings mentioned here are correct, but I think the biggest saving from Free Software come from something else than license costs or reusing old hardware. Free Software can make an organization work as it wants, not as software vendors want, see http://stop.zona-m.net/node/99

  4. 4 yellowmarker August 3, 2012 at 12:28 am

    Open source software: What is holding back adoption by government?

    Takeaway: Despite the potential benefits of using open source software, use of it by the government is slow to increase


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