Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Policy Support
Ghosht R, Glott R, MERIT 2006
Deliverable D25 of EC funded project FP6-IST-507524
As the second of what seems to be a series of FLOSS-themed projects, FLOSSPOLS ran from 2002-2006. This is a summary of one aspect of the final report: government policy.
The aim of the study is maintaining the “EU’s lead research on the socio-economic impact of FLOSS in a competitive global environment”, looking at government policy, the investigation of the structural causes behind the exceptionally low level of participation by women in OSS projects and investigating and modelling the collaborative problem-solving process.
The last two of the areas of the project, although important, are not of direct interest to the subject at hand.
Usage in government
The centrepiece of this part of the report is a survey of PAs and FLOSS across Europe. A low level of awareness of FLOSS software remains a key issue – 29% of PAs not aware that the software they were using was FLOSS. On the other hand, license fees for proprietary software was found to make up 20% of IT budgets: use of FLOSS is seen as a means to reduce this. [p13] The OSS community is seen as a ‘”costless” skills development environment’. Clearly, there is a lot of education required: even the POSS report of 2002 (written by the same team) showed an awareness at European level that in the end OSS has to be paid for by someone [p16].
In the body of the report, nine OSS adoption patterns are identified [pp76-79], by categorising the size of organisation, level of risk that is considered acceptable, awareness of OSS, need for interoperability, level of technical support required, (negative) experiences with proprietary software and level of customisation required.
Complementing this, at the individual level, proven experience in FLOSS project participation was seen as a means of “cost-less” skills training [p15], but the question of who will fund future software development if licence fees are not paid (and free labour cannot be found, for instance the application is ‘boring’) was not covered, nor was the level of involvement in creating or developing, rather than the mere rolling out of open source applications by PAs.
An effort was made to simulate the OSS development process. Two of the findings were that efficient pooling of software development is crucial to take-up, and it was not clear what licensing model works best in terms of increasing the pool of OSS [p14]. Again, this is not really showing anything that was not demonstrated four years earlier: POSS even allowed for a choice of licensing models to allow for the uncertainty over which licensing model to use.
As is made clear in Chapter 2 (“FLOSS and open standards in government”), the report’s position is to provide support for advocates of FLOSS; little consideration is given to the competing arguments over Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) other than a footnote [p19], or where open source software comes from. Use of FLOSS is seen to server broad social-policy goals: “the broad adoption of open source software by the public sector is expected to result in increased economic growth and employment” through reduced costs [p20], resulting in political decisions to support OSS. This constrasts with the sceptical attitude (eg Schmidt 2002 and others) that it is best to let the market decide; the state could at most provide the infrastructure to encourage general compatibility and compliance with open standards.
In conclusion, of the three aims of FLOSSPOLS is seen as to flesh out knowledge of how, where and why OSS is used. The focus was the use of open source applications as an alternative to existing proprietary (usually Microsoft) software. Unlike POSS, there was no work on the use of FLOSS techniques when solving new technical problems, adapting an open source application to meet a PA’s individual requirements or releasing exsisting code as open source
Finally, it has to be admitted the headline is probably unfair. Europe probably does know what it wants to do with OSS: it wants to support its development, not least as a counterweight to Microsoft’s dominance of the market. It just seems that there is a disconnect between policy findings and the ability to act on them.
One has to ask: how come it took four years to for the same team to re-establish what was already known in 2002?