Open source and government

Another post I have been sat on and chewing over for a little while…

Charles Arthur in the Guardian highlighted an interesting area of discussion in the use of open source in government a little while ago. He reports on the views of Liam Maxwell, the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who’d like to see a move away from proprietary software such as Microsoft Office within local authorities.

Cllr Maxwell would like to see the Cabinet Office mandate the use of the Open Document file format within all levels of government. This would be as opposed to the file formats used by Microsoft’s products, as well as other systems in use in the public sector.

Cllr Maxwell states:

If one council goes to a service provider such as Capita and asks for a change to its Revenues and Benefits system so it works with OpenOffice and ODF instead of Microsoft Office, Capita will tell them to go away. But if government mandates it, then Capita or any of these other companies that do this work for councils could get it done in six months. It’s a dysfunctional market because it’s set by standards which are set at the centre.

A bit of background for the non-dorks out there. The Open Document Format (ODF) is a non-proprietary file standard for use in office productivity suites, which include things like word processors, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations.

The flagship software to use ODF is OpenOffice.org, as alluded to by Cllr Maxwell. OpenOffice.org was developed predominantly by Sun Microsystems as an open source office suite, which then fed into their proprietary offering, StarOffice.

Now, I am a fan of free and open source software and I try to use it wherever I can. But there is so much misunderstanding out there about the benefits – especially around cost – that I do worry about whether people’s minds are filled with free-as-in-beer.

Here are some of the issues with this particular proposal. I do want to make clear that none of these are insurmountable, nor am I in the business of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. I’m certainly no apologist for Microsoft, their software or their business practices. I want government to make better use of open source, just that it needs to do so with its eyes open.

The idea of the Cabinet Office mandating use of ODF sounds good, but the naivety to think that this would happen for free is remarkable – there’s no way those big boys would do that much work and not make customers pay for it somewhere down the line.

Then there is training – the idea that the majority of council workers could use OpenOffice as well as they use MS Office right away is rather optimistic. In my experience, folks can’t even cope with upgrades between versions of Word, let alone a whole new system! The costs need to added in: training, writing documentation, loss of productivity while people figure out how to do stuff, or what they can’t do anymore that they used to, etc etc.

Next up with OpenOffice is the Oracle issue – they’ve already made significant changes to OpenSolaris since they bought Sun and there is no guarantee they won’t do the same to OpenOffice. Part of the pro-open source argument is sustainability, but if the sponsoring corporation (which owns the IP and drives development) doesn’t want to know then it would be very hard in practice for the community to get things up and running again.

(Actually, we kind of know what is happening here, as a separate organisation appears to have been formed to managed a fork of OpenOffice.org called LibreOffice. Confusion abounds!)

Next, support. Where is the organisation that can provide support to large organisations when it comes to switching over office suites? It would drown a council ICT department and I can’t think off the top of my head of any company providing this sort of service at scale for it to be outsourced to.

Finally – do we even know if ODF is better than the current alternatives? Where’s the benefit for the switch?

Now what I have written sounds like a massive anti-open source rant, but it isn’t. It’s just highlighting some of the issues. I suspect, for example, that the total cost of ownership of an open source ICT solution – certainly on the desktop – would be roughly the same as the Microsoft (or whoever) one, especially when you take into account select agreements etc.

The arguments in favour of open source need to be on the basis that the software is better, more reliable and stable, quicker and feature rich, and that it works for the government context – adapted for the sector in a cost effective, maintainable and supportable manner.

This brings in a number of issues, around business models for suppliers, procurement, understanding of licensing, copyright and IP, having actual coding knowledge within organisations.

Learning Pool is also a good example of taking open source, contextualising it, then implementing, supporting and maintaining it. We were recently asked to come up with a few bullet points outlining our approach and experiences, which I drafted up as:

  • There are cost savings to be made with open source, but only when the vendor can provide a genuinely comprehensive service that includes implementation and support as well as code. Otherwise the total cost of ownership can spiral.
  • The argument for open source must be based on better, not cheaper, software. We benefit from hundreds of people tracking bugs, developing plugins and testing betas which helps give our product the edge over proprietary rivals.
  • The flexibility of cloud based applications saves significant amounts of time and therefore money in providing upgrades and new features to customers – who don’t have the bother of installing patches etc.
  • Building sharing and collaboration between our customers into the business model has achieved far greater cost savings than either the open source foundation of our software, or the cloud based delivery of it. The fact that we don’t just tolerate, but rather encourage, our customers to share and redistribute resources means government is redesigning fewer wheels every day.

Having said that, we use the LAMP stack which is pretty much a won argument on open source in many ways, it’s other technology, especially on the desktop, where the debate needs to be refined and informed.

Discussions around open source use in government have to be based on pragmatism: is the OSS solution as good as the competition? Is it comaptible with other systems? What are the training overheads? What are the support, maintenance and development arrangements?

The truth is that replacing enterprise IT systems with open source alternatives is a lot more complicated than deciding to build a new website in WordPress. I quickly Googled for ‘open source ERP’ (ERP is Enterprise Resource Planning, those big internal systems made by people like SAP and Oracle, that run HR, finance, CRM and everything else) this afternoon, and the top result was something called Openbravo. I tweeted about it, and none of my contacts – even the open source IT analyst folks – had even heard of it.

It’s probably not surprising that people procuring this stuff run into the arms of the traditional vendors and system integrators.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

4 thoughts on “Open source and government”

  1. Good post, and timely because of some of the knee-jerk reaction to spending cuts seems to assume that lifecycle cost of FOSS products is so much lower than their proprietary alternatives that this could fix the country’s finances in one fell swoop.

    I want to pick up on one point however:
    “The arguments in favour of open source need to be on the basis that the software is better, more reliable and stable, quicker and feature rich, and that it works for the government context – adapted for the sector in a cost effective, maintainable and supportable manner.”

    There’s a vendor risk management angle to this as well. “Free” means you have freedom to change suppliers. As a sector we are really bad at managing our suppliers and they end up managing us, and quite frankly we get stiffed more often than not. We can only mitigate this by joining together as customers (to increase our power) and managing our suppliers in a more mature way (to increase our expertise). FOSS solutions are too often seen as a means of forcing suppliers to get a better deal when we should be building partnerships.

    Martin

  2. Interesting post. The LibreOffice “confusion” is debatable, but I think you really make a common mistake in asking the “where are the large-scale support providers?” question.

    Those big inefficient expensive support providers are only really needed for more sustainable software if you are trying to switch a big organisation over in one jump. The software is sustainable, so the amount of support should diminish over time. However, to enable you to switch a big organisation over bit by bit, then you need to be able to pass files backwards and forwards. You can’t do that if one provider controls the file formats and that’s why vendor-neutral standards are important.

    You’re probably right that the big providers will recoup their costs in supporting ODF (or whatever else) somehow, but it is a vital step to reopen the marketplace. The dominant providers probably know that an open marketplace means more sustainable software shared out among more providers which means lower support revenue for them, so why would they adopt it if it’s not mandated?

    I’m no fan of this sort of government intervention (most often because poor enforcement or the tragedy of targets derails it), but I can see why it might be desirable here.

    One of the other things I’d point out is about retraining costs and proprietary file conversions and so on: those are not costs of adopting FOSS. They are exit costs of the currently-used systems which will have to be paid one day and should be shown on the balance sheet as a liability already, although the price tag will change over time.

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