Government Open Source: Doomed Without Political Will

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Government IT departments can’t get open source intalled without political backing, according to a senior figure in the iconic Munich open source migration

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It is not enough for IT departments to identify cost savings and technical advantages of open source, according to a senior manager from Europe’s most high-profile Linux migration. There must also be the political will to overcome the tactics of proprietary vendors.

Commenting on the current legal wrangles in Switzerland, and other countries where lobbying by proprietary vendors has effectively made Microsoft and other proprietary software the only choice for government IT projects, Florian Schiessl, deputy manager of the Munich LiMux project, said there has to be political will to push through change.

“Our politicians decided to have independence – we have the political backing. If there is no political backing – I know from many, many projects in the principalities and in the federal government and so on – then you have a real problem,” he said.

Schiessl was speaking at an open source event in the Hungarian capital Budapest, sponsored by the European Open Source Observatory and Repository, Red Hat and open source consultancy ULX. Hungary is currently trying to allow open source software in government IT tenders which are largely dominated by Microsoft and other proprietary vendors.

Last month Linux vendor Red Hat, and 17 other vendors, protested a Swiss government contract given to Microsoft without any public bidding. The move exposes a wider Microsoft monopoly that European governments accept, despite their lip service for open source, according to commentators.

“All over Europe this kind of thing is happening, and in the UK almost all public sector tenders that we see actually *specify* Microsoft products,” said Mark Taylor of the UK based Open Source Consortium. “Even those that don’t will normally insist that the tendered for technology ties in with specific Microsoft products. I cannot imagine any other area of Government procurement where this practice would be allowed.”

Schiessl was on hand at the Hungarian government conference to discuss Munich’s high profile decision to migrate its desktops and office productivity apps from Microsoft to open source alternatives. The project has been progressing since 2003 – and along with Massachusetts’ decision to back the ODF open document format – is seen as an iconic project by many in the open source community.

However the high-profile nature of the Munich project – which will see around 14000 desktops migrated to Linux and Open Office – has meant that it’s also attracted attention from opponents of open source and proprietary vendors including visits to the authority from the top two Microsoft executives. “Both of them have visited Munich. Steve Ballmer in 2003 and Bill Gates in 2004,” said Schiessl.

Schiessl’s advice for the government IT professionals in the audience was that it is not enough to only consider the technical and financial considerations of moving to open source but also to consider the political impact – especially the effect of lobbying.

“If you are thinking of switching to free software then you have to be aware of lobbying. That is one of the tactics that is normal today – that big companies spend much money on lobbying you or anti-lobbying you,” said Schiessl.

Since the Munich migration was first announced, there have been rumours and reports on the web about its progress including stories that the project had stalled and had even been reversed, said Schiessl.

“There were a lot of rumours about what didn’t go right in Munich. I don’t know where the rumours came from but I am very often asked,”Oh, I have heard that Munich is going back to Microsoft solutions because you are failing your project.” I don’t know who spread this but that is anti-lobbying,” he said.

Given the tough economic conditions that most of Europe is facing at the moment, Schiessl suggested emphasising that open source options might result in government IT spending being directed to the local economy, rather than being spent on improving the “share holder value” of foreign IT vendors.

“You have to define your arguments and tell your politicians that it’s a good thing to strengthen the local economy. If they don’t want to hear this – if they only want to hear the short term costs then I think there is no chance to do something,” he said.