There have been a lot of stories around public procurement of IT services and software lately. Naturally I filter for the ones that say nice things about Free Software or indicate that Free Software is gaining traction in the public sector. I can explain why I feel that governments (at all levels) should prefer Free Software over proprietary software whenever possible, and it comes down to my belief that governments exist to take care of, or improve, the quality of life of their subjects. That’s the moral basis for their existence, and you are right in saying that it’s also stunningly naive of me in practice. So I will claim that governments should do what is best for their people and that short-term TCO calculations, dependency on third parties, vendor lock-in and data hostaging (is there a term for “your own data is stored in a proprietary format that may not even be legal for you to reverse-engineer and extract?”) are not good ways to serve the people. Developing local skills, fostering cooperation and pushing open standards for long-term storage and interoperability is. Now, this isn’t to say that there’s no space for proprietary software at all, but it’s a little like importing rice to feed the populace: something you want to do as little as possible and stop doing as quick as you can, because it places you at the mercy of your food (or software) sources.
Anyway, let’s take a look at a few of the stories: Vancouver embraces Open Source (does this have anything to do with Aaron moving there?). One weird quote in there from Andrea Reimer “now we just have to look forward on implementation and figuring sort of the order with which we do that.” That sounds like there’s goodwill, but no concrete implementation plan to me. Still a step in the right direction. Also from the article: “For example, she said, videos made at city hall, including videos of council meetings, are currently in a proprietary format that cannot be posted on YouTube.” Sounds to me like they need Theora, as YouTube in itself is not a long term storage provider.
Way down in New Zealand there has been some changes in the procurement strategy of the State Services Commission. From the Reg’s reporting (or the SSC statement) it is difficult to say whether this is a real win for Free Software or whether it’s just a no-central-deal-has-been-reached situation where individual departments now strike their own deals. One desirable approach to procurement might be to require an evaluation of Free Software first.
The UK has found some savings, but unfortunately by shifting around proprietary software licenses and not by going for something that is Free (it might not be cheaper, but it will be better controlled in the long run). The hard-to-credit part of the story is actually that specialized tools are (or were) apparently bundled previously, and the savings are to be realized through unbundling.
On the bundling front, though, there’s Romania (also on Glyn Moody’s blog with a variety of very bitter comments about EU politics, further emphasizing that my sunny picture of the duty of government above is totally whack; Romanian translation of the OSOR article also available — it’s an interesting language to try to read). The question to ask is always: at the end of the contract period, what do you have left? And I’m afraid that the answer will be “increased dependence and no software.” Throwing that much money at one or more Free Software companies would change the end results considerably even if in the short or medium term the results are less comfortable.
[[ PS. As far as checking out what kinds of procurement strategies there are and what IT money is spent on, the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) or equivalent might be useful. In the Netherlands we have something called the WOB which makes it possible to request information about the decisions made in council by various levels of government; it seems that Dutch blogger and journalist Brenno de Winter has gone and WOBbed every local council in the country for information regarding their adherence to the national action plan on software procurement. ]]