March 2008

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and it's high time open source squeaked."

Dana Blankenhorn

The story of the growth of open source use in Canada has been far more a matter of evolution than revolution, so quiet in its pace that its progress has been difficult to measure. This has posed many challenges to Canadian open source advocates in their efforts to ensure that their country does not lag behind the rest of the world in understanding the social and business benefits open source provides.

Perhaps some of the leading soldiers in the trenches might be our civil servants who protect the public purse. In addition to managing and minimizing the costs of delivering necessary services, public sector projects should also advance the social good through the delicate balance of transparency and efficiency.

Government and Standards

In North America, much news was made of the state of Massachusetts and its attempts to promote open standards in the face of massive opposition from proprietary technology vendors. The simple logic of not tying access to public information to a single software vendor has been extremely difficult, thanks to the well-bankrolled lobbying efforts of proprietary vendors and their proxies.

The long story of this effort, which is not over, is well detailed at Groklaw and other sites such as No OOXML. Groklaw describes how the fight over standards has gone international, with Microsoft working hard to achieve ISO approval for a file format "standard" that depends upon proprietary software implementations. At the heart of Microsoft's entry into the world of international standards is the understanding that governments are increasingly looking to free and open standards as a way to enhance transparency and public accessibility to its services. Open source, by its nature, gravitates effortlessly to truly open standards such as TCP/IP and the OpenDocument file format. Conversely, open source is impeded in working with "standards" which are protected by patents or controlled by a single source.

Most governments are following the standards battles closely, looking for winners and losers. Others, such as China, have been more proactive. The Chinese government mandated its OpenDocument-friendly UOF (uniform office format) regardless of the results of the ongoing skirmishes. Such occurences are good news for open source solutions as they level the playing field. Moreover, end users should have the ability to use file formats or networking protocols; this should not be an area in which vendors compete with incompatible alternatives.

Various government agencies, from Bosnia to the United Kingdom, are adopting an open source strategy. Prominent countries such as Germany and China are getting significant press on their procurement policies. A famous 2003 win for Linux in the City of Munich--despite Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer's personal intervention against it--is still offered as a case study.

Open Source in Canada

By contrast, most government use of open source in Canada is done with little fanfare or awareness. Sometimes, open source is implemented through conventional tendering and RFP processes. Just as often, though, open source projects in the public sector start life as back-room experiments, often on shoestring budgets and exceeding expectations.

In reality, few facts are available to prove the level at which open source has become a part of the IT (information technology) landscape in Canada's federal, provincial and municipal governments. Indeed, it is a common perspective amongst open source advocates and consultants that the three levels of Canadian government do not have an official procurement policy that favours open source solutions, or even mandates fully open IT standards. Interesting, little has changed since e-cology corporation completed their 2003 benchmark research study regarding the prevailing private and public sector views on open source.

Despite government attendance at various workshops and discussions included in the report, the open source community has witnessed little concrete action by the federal government to take a proactive role in adopting a pro-open source procurement policy. A 2006 speech by University of Ottawa Professor Michael Geist at the Emerging Dynamic Global Economies Network conference in Ottawa, noted that the Canadian government has been "painfully slow" to adopt and promote open-access software and research.

In a recent interview, Geist commented that "building an open-source network in Canada by requiring open-source software on most civil servants' desktops would not only help Canada innovate, it could improve security by reducing our reliance on a small number of proprietary software developers, which increase risks and costs".

Furthermore, little evidence exists to indicate that provincial or municipal governments are any more progressive in this regard. No study similar to the e-cology project has ever surveyed their attitudes or policies, though some open source advocates are trying to initiate one.

While some of the cost and accessibility benefits of open source may seem self-evident to advocates, within the government procurement mindset these may be balanced against external concerns. Russell McOrmond, who works with the Canadian Association for Open Source identifies the concerns with "copyright and patent laws, and their interaction with other economic policy such as procurement (NAFTA chapter 10) and Competition policy".

The situation in the United States is not substantially better since the highwater mark in Massachusetts. Government Computer News reports that the US Office of Federal Procurement Policy has advised government agencies that "they must ensure software licensing requirements are understood before purchasing technology because they can be legally complex and can directly impact agency operations".

While such a warning does not mandate against open source, it provides obstacles because open source models and licenses are not as well understood as conventional payment for proprietary technology. The concept of software sharing may be difficult for some long-time managers to grasp, which means that open source must also constantly fight against fear of the unknown. Towards Change

Rather than providing a shopping list here of the countries who have adopted a pro-open source strategy, readers are encouraged to visit the Redhat website where such activities are tracked. Red Hat acknowledges that "governments of the world are among the key players in the building momentum of open source software".

Perhaps Canadians need to look further afield for examples of open source victories in public procurement. The European Union has indicated a greater friendliness to open source, and neutral procurement policies exist in England which, in theory, favour open source by requiring the evaluation of open source solutions before proprietary ones.

In the Canadian context, advocates need to recognize that the current adoption of open source as part of IT procurement policies is facing an uphill challenge, due in part to:

  • the lack of education and advocacy to procurement offices
  • an absence of marketing to promote OSS to government departments
  • no OSS presence in the federally funded ICT council in forums and research
  • the 2001 National Occupational Classifications are out of date and contain little information on OSS skills
  • a noticeable absence of open source input into various IT job growth studies produces an "out of sight, out of mind" phenomenon

Advocates hoping to create a neutral procurement policy in Canada need to be aware that this requires:

  • better co-operation between open source solutions, vendors, and community advocates
  • improved awareness of the existing procurement policies in order to address deficiencies and uphold standards of fairness and transparency
  • advancement of the benefits to government aims of maximum efficiency and minimized costs and the public benefits of technology sharing and open standards

The challenges are significant but not insurmountable. They require some resources, but also vigilance and perseverance. [Editors Note: Canadian readers are encouraged to join GOSLING (Get Open Source Logic INto Government)].

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