On several occasions I’ve seen the Open Source community (more usually, those fanatical about the concept rather than authors within the space) petition for government to stop spending money on software licenses. At its core this is a good idea but along the way I’ve witnessed many do’s and don’ts with this approach. What has worked for me, and gotten not just several bits of open source into government systems but the funding to do it, is the ethos I document here.
Rule number 1: Don’t be a bully
And it’s the only rule. Don’t be a jerk. Yes, it’s your TAX money, no one cares, but the government does actually want your help, and in my experience they will take it every time – but some people there are just as afraid of losing their job as anyone else out there, and extremely afraid of being made to look incompetent. Don’t tell them what to do, guide people to your way of thinking. Get people in your corner and then run with it. Lobbying and making a huge fuss right out the gate will make people oppose you and think you’ve got some agenda, but if they think you’re going to make them look good – you’re golden.
Do NOT try to push Linux on the desktop…
The first thing people want is for every government workstation to run Linux. As someone who writes open source software, and works with it every day, I don’t use Linux on my workstation for a bunch of reasons mostly out of my control. The first is that I usually work on my MacBook, and OS X is great. The second is that X doesn’t cooperate with my desktop. I’m sure someone with more patience could hack it to pieces and make it work, I’m sure I could if I could be bothered – but I don’t, because I actually still require Windows for a few things like playing games and managing servers with their really poorly written management interfaces, one of which only works on IE8. My point is this, attacking the Windows desktop will get you shot down.
… Because compatibility
Through many years of “my nephew James knows computers” built systems which are only compatible with IE6, Adobe based forms systems, Access databases, VBScript tied into Excel based tools, the list goes on. As someone who spent many years working with government to design and implement open source systems (yes, they really do use some stuff already), these nightmarish systems that most of us only read about on The Daily WTF exist in abundance. We’re talking about the stuff of nightmares here, and very solidly entrenched stuff.
… Because cost
If you know OEM’s you’ll know that somehow they can build cheaper computers than it seems we can build ourselves when paying out our nose for a standalone copy of Windows. Genuinely through various schemes, subsidies and discounts I can tell you that government pays extremely little in the grand scheme of things for licensing Windows. It’s a nominal cost, made more nominal through Microsoft bulk licensing programmes. It would cost them a whole lot more in man hours to replace Windows on their desktops than it would to just continue using it, never mind re-training a few million staff members who are less technically competent than your grandmother.
Build it and they will come
I propose a different tactic, focus on the backend and people facing systems. There is benefit to open source in government, but it’s open source between government. The UK for example has a pretty good system for managing drivers licenses – but South Africa’s is terrible, they spent billions getting ‘eNaTiS’ running and it is a pathetic failure. That’s not entirely the governments fault, it’s also because of the incompetent fraudsters who claim they can build these systems in the first place – the Johannesburg municipal billing crisis being another great example. And then there’s the DNA sequence databases used around the world for crime fighting – why the hell are they all proprietary monsters that can’t talk to one another? Do we not want to solve crime? Why couldn’t we just go “Hey, England, how about you give us a copy of that system you’ve got”. Why did we have to pay Germany 2 billion euros to get a license plate recognition system? Well, it’s not as if there’s an open source system for that.
Problem is we can’t just tell government they have to use open source, come up with a list of reasons why, and then not actually show them how. Government represents an arbitrage opportunity to these dishonest cowboy businesses which have never done anything before, and then disappear into the night leaving increasingly terrible systems in their wake, those are the people we really need to fight and publicly denounce. So, pitch in a tender with an R1.00 price tag if you want them to go open source. These are actually fairly easy systems to build if they’re well thought out, but we first need the right people to start building them.
If we investigate the requirements of these systems and build well designed open source alternatives, then we can actually start talking about asking our governments to use them. I think at that point though we won’t have to do much talking.