Open source in government IT: It is about savings but that's not the whole story

The mood in governments around the world has swung behind open source and open standards, but the shift is not being driven by cost cutting alone.

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Could open source help cut the White House's multibillion-dollar software bill?

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The US government spends about $6bn per year on software licenses and maintenance, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Given the scale of that spending, it's understandable that the US, like other administrations around the world, is considering open-source software and open software standards as a way of saving money.

But more than just seeing the move to open source as a cost-effective alternative, public officials worldwide view it as a means of speeding up innovation in the public sector.

In October, the Dutch government set into law a proposal that all government bodies should use open document formats starting in 2017. In addition, the Dutch government will be promoting open-source software across the public and private sector.

The open document format is a digital file type that meets open-standards requirements, a set of technical software specifications that encourages open and proprietary software applications to integrate seamlessly with one another.

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For example, the open document file type .odt is compatible with both the proprietary Microsoft Office and the open-source OpenOffice and LibreOffice alternatives.

In June, the US government passed into law the Megabyte Act, which aims to streamline software license spending with a projected savings of up to $181m per year for a single internal agency.

And in August, the US government issued a new federal software policy that aims to improve efficiency, transparency, and innovation across government by promoting the use of open source.

In many ways, these software licenses are a symptom of the tech world's hold on governments. In Europe, governments struggle to keep tech companies publicly responsible by urging them to pay their fair share of taxes, while they rely on these companies' technologies to keep their administrations running.

Avoiding entering into binding licensing contracts is one way that governments can separate themselves from the power of tech companies.

"You create a lock-in situation, where company X created it and they are the only ones who know how relationships in the data and database itself work well enough to maintain it," says Kane McLean, a public-sector technology consultant and co-chair of Open Source for America.

Before the UK government implemented its open-standards plan in 2014, Microsoft threatened to move its Microsoft Research laboratories out of the UK, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Adopting this type of strategy often means refraining from using proprietary software and choosing open-source software instead. As part of its ongoing open-standards program, UK government officials who wish to set up new services must avoid software licenses that require them to use proprietary software.

The Microsoft Office suite is one of the most expensive software licenses for governments to maintain, and governments are among Microsoft's largest customers. While the rates Microsoft charges to governments are not publicly available, the business consumer price of the Microsoft 365 suite jumped by 59 percent at the end of 2015.

The Australian government's spending on Microsoft desktop licenses jumped by 33 percent in 2016, a significant jump from previous years, according to iTnews. From the middle of 2016 to the middle of 2019, Australia's Department of Finance will pay A$67m ($50m) per year on Microsoft licenses.

Some large tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, are committed to the spirit of open-source software. And to support the demand for open document formats, a few years ago Microsoft introduced the .docx format, which is compatible with most text programs.

As governments disseminate increasingly more information and offer more services online, they need to connect new websites and applications to older ones, as well as across departments. To avoid having to rewrite old software code to function with new apps, governments are encouraging developers to use software with built-in open standards.

The primary goal of employing open source in government is to facilitate the transfer of data as smoothly as possible. Open-standards proponents say this approach would lead to more innovation within government and better citizen services.

"The database itself is so intertwined with the data, and the data is so intertwined with the database, that they are virtually inseparable. So once you are intimately familiar with both the data and that database, reinventing it would be a very, very difficult challenge," says Open Source for America's McLean.

The new Dutch law's sponsor, Astrid Oosenbrug, told Dutch iT-channel that open-document formats would improve information sharing from the government to citizens and give the government more freedom in choosing IT suppliers. Meanwhile, using open-source software would improve competition in the software industry, she said.

Open Source for America's McLean says his organization is seeing far more smaller projects becoming parts of major systems in federal IT, in a way not experienced before the adoption of open standards.

"It really is amazing when you level the playing field and drop the barriers, the people who come out and want to play, they've had some amazing ideas," he says.

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