As general manager of the Sourcing & Security Branch of AGIMO (Australian Government Information Management Office), Steve Alford is in the thick of the recently revitalised discussions about open source software in government departments. AGIMO has taken on a central role in the debate, offering itself as a government information clearinghouse, developing a best-practice guide for departments implementing open source solutions, and supporting development of a government-wide library of open source components.
Early open source projects at organisations like the Department of Veterans' Affairs and Centrelink reflect government interest in open source solutions. While many departments recognise the value of open source solutions, however, Alford cautioned that necessary prudence means they will invariably choose the lower-risk solution - and in most cases, open source still struggles to meet that criterion.
"We have a group of active practitioners who are trying [open source] out, and a group of interested people who are watching for the results," Alford said. "But it's not like turning on a light switch: you don't just go to open source. They want to know how it fits in with their contract renewal cycles, to what extent they can put current suppliers on a pilot or have them manage the implementation [and so on]. They're asking a lot more questions about their environment".
Because open source developers are often smaller companies without the financial resources and sheer size of their multinational competitors, satisfactorily answering these questions can be tricky. Rather than assuming that government departments inherently want non-Microsoft solutions, Alford explained, suppliers need to develop bundles that include open source software, documentation, defined pricing structures, warranties and other elements typically offered by proprietary ISVs.
"Having bundles of things that have a defined price and structure, and all those things you can actually buy, is a lot easier than having someone come to the door and say 'you can have anything you like; what would you like?'," he said. Often, "when you say 'how much will it cost?' they say 'it depends on how much you want'. That's a very difficult discussion to have, and to use to close a deal with someone".
Squiz.net, developer of the open-source MySource Matrix content management system, knows how hard these discussions can be. After years of development, Squiz.net built up a compelling enough overall value proposition that it has been able to woo 33 government departments including AGIMO - which went live with MySource Matrix in November 2003 - and the NSW Rail Authority.
Gaining that legitimacy took time, conceded Squiz director Stephen Barker, who offered his experience during an AUUG Q&A session. "What the government wants is packaged implementations that address all the risks and tick all the boxes," he said. "We've developed implementation packages that land on the desks of people like Steve [Alford] and make it easier for them".
"Providing bite-sized deliverables, for government to take on with minimal risk, has made [open source] a lot more palatable for them," he continued. "The biggest issues we have now are in resourcing the [implementations] and managing these implementations through the government processes, adhering to their project methodology requirements, risk analysis requirements and ongoing service requirements".
Even with the right value proposition, smaller vendors may need the sponsorship of a larger government department to reach critical mass within government: AGIMO, for example, sponsored MySource Matrix through a Defence Signals Directorate security assessment that ensured it meets government security requirements. Although it wasn't necessary, this seal of approval gave the solution additional credentials and acceptance.
AGIMO is building up a collection of packages that embody departments' experiences with particular open source solutions - including applications and detailed guidelines about implementing them, as well as information about support options and other relevant issues.
Over time, Alford believes a growing body of packaged solutions will encourage government departments to delve further into the world of open source. "We're aiming to build an accretion of project outcomes that can be tabled so departments can say 'I'll take this one, this one and that one'," he said.