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Is 2011 the year of open source in the public sector?

As budgets tighten, governments around the world are firming up their open source pledges. Rory MacDonald investigates if 2011 might well be the year open source breaks into the public sector...

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This article is due to appear in issue 96 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Speaking shortly before Christmas, cabinet office minister Francis Maude reiterated the importance of open source software for future government contracts. Speaking to a delegation of large IT suppliers, including BT, Cap Gemini, Hewlett Packard and IBM, Maude pulled no punches, stating:

“The days of the mega IT contracts are over, we will need you to rethink the way you approach projects, making them smaller, off the shelf and open source where possible.”

The speech, at a supplier summit in London, broke no new ground, but it is the clearest indication yet that the coalition government is committed to pre-election pledges from both parties to level the playing field for both open source and smaller IT suppliers in providing IT goods and services to the public sector.

“We will open up the market to smaller suppliers and mutuals, and we will expect you to partner with them as equals, not as sub-ordinates,” Maude told the delegation.

UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude stands behind pre-election promises on open source

Highlighting the inefficiencies of the existing government IT procurement process, Maude also said that government will no longer be a source of “easy margins” for the large IT suppliers. He outlined plans for greater transparency in all future dealings between government and suppliers, saying he expects the terms of all future IT procurement contracts to be made available online.

A report published by The Tax Payers Alliance in late 2009 highlights public sector IT projects as a major contributor the UK’s phenomenal £19 billion overspend on capital procurement projects. The National Programme for IT within the NHS topped the TPA’s blacklist, running over-budget by nearly £10.4 billion. Governments and public sector organisations around the world are continuing to strengthen policies openly favouring open source, as budgets are squeezed in the need to cut swathes out of government spending.

In December, the local government in the Canadian province of Quebec were the latest to announce a preference for open source. According to treasury board president Michelle Courchesne, free and open source software must satisfy three criteria: Does it meet our needs? Is it a quality product? Is the cost favourable?

“If the answer is positive, we’re going to favour free software,” she told reporters from the Montreal Gazette.

The new policy is part of the province’s attempts to cut $200 million (Canadian) from the current $2.6 billion (Canadian) annual IT budget. As in the UK, Quebec’s ministers have faced criticism as a series of massive IT projects have spiraled out of control, running massively over budget and were completeted up to five years beyond their delivery deadline.

The moves in Canada, the UK and similar policies across Europe fly in the face of the bullying tactics used by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) to discourage governments from promoting open source in the public sector. The IIPA is an umbrella organisation of the MPAA and RIAA. At the beginning of 2010, the organisation was openly lobbying the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to place countries promoting open source onto the Special 301 Watch List. This trading blacklist is normally reserved for countries that the US considers enemies of capitalism.

However, with governments across the developed world under immense pressure to reduce national debts, is policy rhetoric around open source software simply being used as a flag to wave in order for them to be seen to be taking action? Is policy being turned into action?

The European Commission (EC) has been more outspoken than many other governmental organisations in its support of open source and open standards. However, the commission has recently been criticised for failing to live up to its own guidelines.

FSFE’s Karsten Gerloff accuses EC of failing to stick to its own policies on open source

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has issued a strongly worded statement condemning last month’s €189 million deal to by what the group regarded as a largely proprietary bundle of software and related services. FSFE claimed the deal, with Netherlands-based supplier PC Ware, goes against several of the EC’s own directives to promote open specifications and interoperability.

“This is a rough deal for Europe”, commented FSFE president Karsten Gerloff. “European citizens expect the Commission to keep its costs low, to spend their tax money in ways that promote Europe’s development, and to stick to its own policies,” comments Gerloff. “This behaviour by DIGIT fails Europeans on all three counts. It damages the Commission’s credibility.”

Francisco Garcia-Moran, director-general of the European Commission’s directorate of informatics, has since refuted the FSFE’s claim. In an official letter passed on to Computer Weekly and eWEEK, Garcia Moran claimed: “The contract in question does not only cover the acquisition of proprietary software, but also of open source software (OSS) and of OSS-related services,” listing four open source vendors.

Garcia-Moran also hit back at Gerloff with a list of the EC’s open source credentials, including the use of 250 open source products and the operation of 350 Linux servers and 800 open source web servers.

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