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Open Source in Government: Back to the Future

By Andrea Di Maio | February 05, 2014 | 1 Comment

open source in governmentEurope and IT

Yesterday I read an interesting news about the UK government planning to move decisively toward open source in order to reduce both software cost and dependency on specific vendors, such as Microsoft.

This reminds me of a flurry of announcements in the early part of the last decade, when cities, regions and entire countries decided for positive discrimination in favor of open source. At the time, most of the discussion was centered around the need to adopt an open standard in order to increase choice and reduce lock-in :Open Document Format (ODF) was the only one available and it was supported only by open source software such as openOffice. Since then, Microsoft succeeded in getting its own OfficeOpenXML through the standardization process, and at the same it decided to allow  ODF documents to be read and saved in Office. Open source replacements of Microsoft products had different rates of success: some organizations, such as the French Police or the Singapore Ministry of Defense,  were entirely successful while for others there have been different viewpoint on success (like for the City of Munich or the City of Vienna).

Over the last few years, the battleground has moved to the cloud and the main contestants remain Microsoft (with Office 365) and Google (with Google Apps).

In 2004  the UK government published a quite balanced policy, where it required to consider open source alternatives, but to choose them only if they were delivering better value for money. Other countries, such as Brazil or some parts of Europe, have continued pursuing positive discrimination, mandating the ues of open source wherever possible. A few years later, in 2008, the UK government issues a new policy that was more in favor of open source ( the link is not available at the original address the cabinet office site, but here is my research note published at the time). This third step looks even more aggressive, although I have not yet seen the details of the new policy.

As they strive to look for more savings, governments around the world rightly look at how to use the procurement lever to reduce their cost base, cut unnecessary spending and squeeze more efficiency from their relationships with technology suppliers. Alternative sourcing models, including cloud, open source, crowdsourcing and new forms of partnerships will become increasingly popular. On the downside though they will require different and new skills in the public sector: dealing with multiple short-term cloud-like contracts with smaller vendors, managing interoperability and integration across a broader variety of services and products, gaining the necessary expertise about and involvement in selected open source communities, while pushing for agile development methods and continuous innovation in a traditionally risk-averse environment can be a daunting challenge.


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1 Comment

  • The practice shows that open-source is no more (and no less) than alternative business model. Its main usefulness is not in cheaper software (quite often open-source projects are more expensive, with lock-in to integrators and internal staff) but in creating competition. Open-source “monopoly” might be even more harmful than proprietary software monopoly.