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Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan
Open source licenses allow public administrations to change, share and re-use their applications freely. Open standards allow for connectivity and interoperability between the applications. For a wider use of open source software (OSS) by public administrations, it is equally important to require the use of open standards in the public sector. Open source projects can face difficulties when using proprietary standards, especially if these latter require usage royalties.
The member states of the European Union (EU) made steady progress in 2008 in developing information technology (IT) policies on open source and open standards. Spain and France have taken the lead, yet in all EU member states examples of administrations using OSS can be found. Europe's competition commissioner Neelie Kroes warned the EU's institutions to follow suit and use open standards: "I know a smart business decision when I see one".
This article provides an overview of the advancements and some of the setbacks of the implementation of open source and open standards by public administrations in the 27 member states of the European Union in 2008. It is mostly based on the news items the author wrote for the European Union's Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR).
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OSS in France
France and Spain are two EU-member states where the authorities are embracing open source. In 2008, the Gendarmerie, part of France's police force, made the decision to convert all of its 70,000 desktop computers to the GNU/Linux distribution Ubuntu. This switch represents the biggest public administration world-wide to move to open source.
The Gendarmerie, totalling 100,000 employees, is following a typical process of gradual conversion. It started its switch in 2005 by replacing Microsoft Office with the open source alternative OpenOffice. It replaced Microsoft's Internet Explorer with the open source web browser Firefox and Microsoft's email application, Outlook, with the open source Thunderbird program. It is now taking the final step, replacing the operating system. Another open source move, to OpenOffice, was announced last year by the city council of Marseille, the country's second largest city.
Other French authorities using open source include the Directorate for the Official Gazettes, converting its 600 workstations to OpenOffice, the 577 members of the French parliament using Ubuntu, and the Paris city council members using open source on their new laptops. Paris attracted a lot of attention in 2007 when it gave all of its 175,000 high school students and their teachers USB keys loaded with OSS such as OpenOffice, Firefox and the multimedia player VLC. The city hosted two open source conferences in 2008, drawing thousands of attendees. The first, held in Paris, was the 'Capital du Libre' and the second, held in December, was aptly titled the "Open World Forum".
Linux Distributions in Spain
A study published in September 2008 by Cenatic, the Spanish government's resource centre on open source, shows that the country is at the forefront of EU countries using OSS.
Seven of Spain's autonomous regions and communities are involved in the development of GNU/Linux distributions. Linex is developed by Extremadura. It is installed at 70,000 computers in all schools and is used by some 200,000 school students. Guadalinex is developed in Andalusia and is used on 300,000 computers in schools, libraries and information centres. A third distribution is Linkat, developed by the Education Ministry in Catalunya. The autonomous community of Valencia is developing Lliurex and about a million school students in the community of Madrid use MAX, a locally developed distribution which is installed on 60,000 school computers. The autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha is sponsoring the distro Molinex. In the Canary Islands, the administration installed its distribution, Meduxa, on about 35,000 school PCs. The Cenatic report mentions even more implementations, such as the 1,375 open source servers at the Ministry of Public Administrations and the 800 at the Ministry of Justice. It says that Pistalocal+, an open source platform for e-Government services, is running in some 2,500 town halls across Spain.
Slower Adoption in Rest of EU
Compared with France and Spain, OSS adoption among the administrations in the other 25 member states of the EU is an arduous journey.
In Germany, the most prominent example is the city council of Munich, which has been progressing towards a complete open source desktop since 2001. More recently, plans for a complete move to open source were presented in November 2008 by the council of the city of Boblingen, totalling 450 computers. The council wants an alternative in place for when its current proprietary licences run out around 2010. Other cities and administrations, such as the Berlin state administration and the federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt, are either studying such plans or considering small-scale pilot schemes.
Another well-known case that raised new interest last year is that of the German Foreign Ministry. Speaking at the Open Source World conference in Malaga, the former head of IT, Rolf Schuster, showed that open source desktops are far cheaper to maintain than proprietary desktops. The Foreign Ministry began transitioning all of its 11,000 desktops to GNU/Linux in 2003. According to Schuster, this has drastically reduced maintenance costs in comparison with other ministries. "The Foreign Ministry is running desktops in many remote and some very difficult locations. Yet we invest only one thousand euro per desktop per year. That is far lower than other ministries, that on average invest more than 3,000 euro per desktop per year."
Other small-scale moves to open source are taking place in Belgium and the Netherlands. About half of the 12,891 desktops in use at the Belgian Ministry of Justice are running open source.
The Dutch city council of Amsterdam took a small step towards open source in 2008. It successfully concluded a pilot study with sixty complete open source desktops. The council decided that eventually all of its desktops should be based on open source and open standards. With these sixty, the country has fewer than 400 open source desktops in use by public administrations. Three hundred of these are at the Dutch meteorological institute (KNMI). However, in many other Dutch city councils and provincial governments, there are plans to switch to or at least consider a move to OpenOffice.
Poland attracted attention in 2008, with city councils such as Krakow, Katowice, Leba and Jaworzno moving to open source and reporting significant cost savings.
Reported moves to open source by some schools in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Lithuania and in the United Kingdom are very small-scale compared with Russia, where a thousand schools moved to open source on the desktop in 2008, with all other schools to follow this year.
In many other EU countries, there is little open source news to be found. Bulgaria and Malta seem to be stalled in studies and not much is reported from Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden. In Slovenia, one computer at a home for the elderly is fitted with open source.
A major problem for open source is the tendering process used by administrations. According to a report commissioned last year by IDABC, the European Commission's unit for e-Government policies many of the software tenders by public administrations favour proprietary software. The draft of this report, entitled Guidelines on Public Procurement and Open Source Software, was published in October 2008.
The Guidelines show public administrations how to end discrimination against open source in public tenders. It recommends public administrations list criteria for open IT standards when they tender software, for example by requiring that the standard is implementable by all potential providers.
According to Rishab Ghosh, one of the authors of the report: "Many people assume there is a level playing field and that measures to promote open source are no longer needed. In fact, there is widespread bias in favour of proprietary applications". Ghosh is a researcher at UNU-Merit, a joint project by the institute of the United Nations University and Maastricht University in The Netherlands. UNU-Merit is one of the partners in the consortium, that on behalf of the European Commission, has set up, operates and maintains the Open Source Software Observatory and Repository OSOR, a project to promote the use of open source by public administrations.
According to Ghosh, software tenders often have implicit or explicit bias in favour of software brands or specific applications. Of a thousand government IT organisations, 33% said compatibility with previously acquired software is the most important criterion when selecting new applications. As Ghosh notes: "This implicit vendor lock-in means that a tender, meant to last for only five years, leads to a contractual relation lasting ten years or more."
Ghosh and his fellow OSOR researchers also found many cases of explicit bias. Based on a sample of 3,615 software tenders that were published between January and August 2008, 36% requested Microsoft software, 20% asked for Oracle, 12% mentioned IBM applications, 11% requested SAP, and 10% asked for applications made by Adobe. According to Ghosh, a government organisation typically asks for a number of licences or a number of copies of a software application. "It is like requesting the latest Volkswagen and then expecting that everyone can sell these. We all know only Volkswagen dealers can do so."
A basic assumption of public procurement is that, at the end of the defined period, the public administrator has no contractual obligations towards the software vendor. This assumption breaks down for software based on proprietary standards. "If the software originally purchased makes it difficult to use documents and data with similar software from other producers, there is a high cost of changing software vendor", the report says.
"If you cannot quantify these exit costs, then you should limit them. If you cannot limit them, then you either need other software, or you need better criteria", Ghosh explains. He calls on public administrations to begin to evaluate the long-term costs of the use of proprietary standards properly. "Public administrations need to keep their options open. Their documents and data must be available forever."
Publication of the Guidelines did not immediately result in an improvement of the EU member states' behaviour. However, in the Netherlands the report triggered politicians and IT trade publications to scrutinize a few recent IT tenders, forcing the Dutch Foreign Ministry to cancel one of its software requests in November 2008. A few months later, the Dutch government's open source resource centre, NOiV, began investigating a tender from the city council of Utrecht asking for desktops to be shipped with the Microsoft XP operating system. "We want to know if this requirement excludes suppliers of open source operating systems," explains NOiV's legal adviser, Mathieu Paapst.
In several other EU member states, software tenders involving OSS were disputed in 2008. Open source advocacy groups in the Czech Republic are contesting developments in the south district of Ostrava, the country's third largest city. The city district used 230 open source desktops running GNU/Linux, but the head of Ostrava's IT department, Jaromir Tomala, confirmed in 2008 that these are being replaced with Microsoft Windows. In October, open source advocates turned to the web forum of the on-line news site ABC Linuxu. The city district is the country's best known example of public administrations using open source and the migration back to Windows is a regular topic at open source conferences in the Czech Republic.
Tomala is not involved in the decision-making process of the district and says compatibility issues and problems with applications running on that proprietary platform are the cause for the return to Windows. He notes: "You know how it is, almost everybody uses Microsoft."
According to Filip Molcan, who heads the Czech Open Source Software Alliance, the city district cancelled a tender procedure for renewal of the desktops in early 2008 after a GNU/Linux service provider offered the cheapest solution. Andrea Vojkovska, spokeswoman at Ostrava's city hall, later commented that the city district simply wants to standardise the desktops. "The district will publish a call for tender for Microsoft licences sometime in 2009. This competition will take place in accordance with legal terms."
The OSOR Guidelines were published too late to be of any help in a Hungarian court case involving open source. The Municipal Court of Budapest (Fovarosi Birosag) on 1 September 2008 dismissed a case filed by the country's Competition Office. The organisation wanted the court to annul a 25 billion HUF (about 100 million euro) tender by the Hungarian Public Procurement Authority, requesting Microsoft or equivalent software for public administration and educational institutions.
According to a statement by the Competition Office, the software tender violates Hungary's regulations. "It is forbidden to refer to an actual brand. The quoted object of this procurement is Microsoft as a producer. The government cannot neutralise this by adding the expression 'equivalent'." The tender will only strengthen the proprietary software maker's lead position in the market, reasons the Competition Office, and "This is a great mistake." Dismissing the case, the Municipal Court said that since government institutions already use Microsoft software, it is legally correct to tender for similar or equivalent products. A source that attended the court session, but declined to be named, said: "the judge, Radi Andrea, explained that this is because Microsoft software is compatible only with itself." The Competition Office filed an appeal in this case in January 2009.
A very similar call for tender, published in January 2009, was cancelled after a few days. The Procurement Authority did not immediately provide an explanation for the withdrawal.
At first sight, the OSOR Guidelines also seemed to be falling on deaf ears in Latvia. When discussing the budget for 2009, the country's Ministry of Finance in October last year warned government institutions not to consider migration to open source as a way to reduce costs. According to press reports, the ministry said public administrations should investigate their IT needs and find out if they are able to undertake a migration to OSS, "bearing in mind that this should save money and not bring higher costs along." This type of software will increase costs for maintenance, requiring additional staff and staff training, reasoned the ministry.
When asked to comment on the OSOR Guidelines, the ministry emailed that it never created artificial restrictions in its tenders. "Compliance with requirements is the only criterion. For example, Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server is currently the only solution that is able to meet our functionality requirements. We do not see an open source substitute that provides exactly the same functionality."
Two months later, Latvia's Minister for Electronic Government Affairs, Signe Balina, explained in a speech that open standards are essential for improving efficiency and transparency in government. In her key note address to a conference organised by the Latvian Open Technology Association (LATA) in Riga, Balina said that open technology and open standards are fundamental to efficient communication with the government. "It is important that government uses open IT systems to allow citizens and businesses to communicate easily with the government." Minister Balina's message reverberates that of the EU's Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes. In June, the Commissioner fired a warning shot over the heads of her colleagues responsible for IT in the EU's institutions. "The European Commission should not rely on one software vendor and must not accept closed standards", Kroes said in a speech.
After commending the German, French and Dutch governments on their progress, she urged the Commission to do its part: "It must refuse to become locked in a particular technology and risk losing control over its information." Kroes recommends governments use software based on open standards. This decision should be made not just because of the long term economic effects.
Most of civil society, most public administrations and most politicians in the 27 countries in the EU are completely unaware of the risks involved in becoming locked into a particular IT technology and the risk of losing control over their information. Yet in all countries, examples can be found of open source developers, free software advocates, wise public administrators and politicians with a vision that together cause the slow but steady progress of open standards and open source.
European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes stated in May 2008 that a credible competition policy considers more than just the long term economic effects. "There is a democracy issue as well. No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to use a particular company's technology to access government information. No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to choose a closed technology over an open one, through a government having made that choice first."
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