I attended the Open Everything (Cape Town) event on Friday.  Apart from being a masterfully facilitated workshop and an excellent opportunity to talk to other “openly” minded folk, it also featured a great interview with Aslam Jaffee, CIO of the Department of Science and Technology in the Government of South Africa and the current chairperson of the GITOC Open Source and Open Standards working group of the Government IT Officers Council (GITOC).  Matthew Buckland and I interviewed Aslam on his experience of establishing an Open Source, Open Standards, Open Content policy for the South African government.  Mark Surman has blogged about it and has posted a podcast of the interview that you can listen to.

Does Open Source Need To Be Government Policy?

I was somewhat skeptical of the idea of enshrining Open Source as a mandated policy in government.  It seemed a bit like mandating the eating of spinach.  You know it’s good for you but there is a natural resistance to implement something you’ve been ‘ordered’ to implement especially if it means a change from the status quo.  It also seemed to me that good policy follows practice and not so much the other way round.

Having said that I was impressed by Aslam’s presentation and it may be that in the case of South Africa at least, that having an Open Source/Standards/Content policy is a good thing.  The policy states that the government will use Open Source unless there is a compelling reason not to.  This obviously provides a lot of leeway as it is conceivable to write a software specification to suit almost any particular piece of software.  However, it does ensure that at the very least a dialogue needs to take place in each case as to the merits of Open Source.  This alone is a very positive step.

It is interesting that Open Source, Open Standards, and Open Content have been bundled together in the policy.  I am in two minds as to the wisdom of having all of those issues in a single policy document.  On the one hand, I can see how, given the opportunity, one might want to pack as much openness into a policy as possible.  On the other, they are each complex issues in their own right and deserve treatment on their own merits.  In particular, I think Open Standards deserves to be the absolute, non-negotiable backbone of procurement policy whereas I think the dialogue-driven tone they have struck with Open Source is probably about right.  Open Content is a different kettle of fish again and appears to be directly at odds, at least in spirit, with the Intellectual Property legislation currently being tabled in parliament.

Flavours of Openness

What does Open Source in government really mean?  Aslam mentioned at least three broad categories.  Open at the server, open at the desktop, and open at the application level.   He pointed out that the South African government has been using Open Source software for its mail and web servers for many years.  Further, there is work underway by a couple of departments (the CSIR and the Department of Science and Technology) to roll-out Ubuntu on user desktops.  However, in the area of large scale corporate applications not much has happened yet.

While I think there are compelling reasons to deploy Open Source desktops and mail and web servers, I think the real opportunity for Open Source in Government lies at the application level.  Governments around the world face similar challenges at the national, provincial, and local levels.  As the trend towards e-services grows within government, one cannot help but wonder how much duplication is taking place around the world in the development of applications to deliver services, whether government-to-citizen, government-to-business, or government to government.

The Frontier for Open Source in Government

Many initiatives claim to be Open Source but fail in significant ways.  The Brazilian government’s Department of Health is a great example of this.  They have developed a comprehensive health information management system which is theoretically Open Source but only available through governments i.e. the Brazilian government may privately offer the software to the South African government.  This strategy may give the Brazilian government a comforting sense of control but it substantially reduces the chances that any other government will ever implement this software.  Perhaps this is not a tragedy from a Brazilian perspective but think of all the lost opportunities for Ministries of Health around the world.  What this strategy misses out on are the many health information system developers around the world who could potentially contribute to this project.

Consider by comparison, an initiative such as OpenMRS.  OpenMRS is a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system framework.  Thanks to its modular design and a robust, open API, OpenMRS lends itself to flexible extension into a variety of more specific applications.  Government support for flexible core applications like OpenMRS could transform the way that applications are developed to support government services.

A powerful step any government could take would be to get behind independent, transparent, community-driven Open Source initiatives like OpenMRS to support the development of common, open applications for effectively delivery of government services.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data