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Open source in government — only implementation will tell

I’ve worked in and around government a long time — probably 20 years or more now. And much of that in or around IT and web units in government departments.

Today’s announcement by the Special Minister of State that Federal agencies are now required to consider open source options in their procurements is certainly a step forward in getting open source software and tools considered by government. But as Delimiter head honcho, Renai LeMay accurately notes, there’s nothing in the announcement or the policy that is likely to really have any measurable effect.

In spite of what I desperately hope will ring in some real and wide-ranging consideration of open source options (note, I don’t say deployment — that’s a choice based on many complicated factors), I’m doubtful it will result in much change any time soon. In fact, based on my experience, the status quo will hold.

It’s not that these policies prevent change happening, it’s just that they do nothing to actively encourage it. There’s nothing in them to ensure change, or the introduction of additional, and often useful tools or alternatives. We’re a long way off, for example, any federal agency deploying OpenOffice as standard, and further still from a common Linux desktop.

If organisations like Google can manage this sort of thing, a decently staffed and equipped federal agency certainly can.

In the public sector, Microsoft Windows (with many deployments still at Windows XP) holds massive sway, Internet Explorer is the default for web browsing (and more often than not, is still IE6, a 10-year-old, non-standards compliant dinosaur) and Microsoft Office remains the near-default office productivity (cough) suite (again, with many agencies still using installs of Office 2003).

Are we detecting a theme here?

So too, as Renai notes, AGIMO’s CoE guidance released last week, though allowing for non-Microsoft options, does little to actively encourage agencies to introduce new options — continuing a policy of bound to Microsoft, locked-down desktops, bog-standard operating environments with little scope for customisation or needed additional tools. When it takes 6–8 weeks or more to get an extra piece of software added to your machine at 2–3 times its shelf cost because of maintenance agreements, you often do without, or bring in your personal machine (a sight becoming ever more prevalent).

Getting a toehold for anything outside the Microsoft (and occasionally IBM) juggernaut is a near impossibility. There’s no driving reason for IT managers in federal agencies to consider anything else — legacy back-compatibility, ease of SoE management, training (when and if it’s offered, rarely), built-in management all make the choice not to change easy. There’s barely a drive to upgrade existing versions of Microsoft tools given the ingrained risk aversion, costs, bureaucratic rigmarole associated with the FMA and plain resistance to change endemic in parts of the public sector.

Mind you, this is as much an issue in public sectors beyond Australia as well as big business. They’re all tied into inflexible arrangements and architectures that discourage change.

I think I raised options for use of Apache for the first time in the federal agency I was then in (working as a manager in a biggish web development team) in 2001. About a year later, I raised the option of using early versions of OpenOffice and not long after that, the use of early versions of Eclipse as an IDE and Firefox (then Firebird) as an alternative browser option. At each of those times, and subsequently, I was told politely to shut my mouth — introducing these new things would cause unnecessary need for change, inconvenience IT management and illustrated a propensity to not accept the status quo. Hmm…

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Jeff Ribeira

Hmm…indeed. Interesting thoughts and experiences. It seems like the jump to open source software is easier said than done. Like you said, the training alone would be quite the undertaking.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Great post! I believe that the resistance stems from the naturally slow ability of governments to adopt innovations in contrast to business. I think what we are seeing now in government are the same battles we saw over ten years ago when Open Source was being adopted in business.

Don’t give up hope. As governments look for better and cheaper solutions they will naturally turn to Open Source. We just have to keep demonstrating the power of Open Source.