Open Government: the Latest Member of the Open Family

by Glyn Moody

One of the most exciting developments in the last few years has been the application of some of the core ideas of free software and open source to completely different domains. Examples include open content, open access, open data and open science. More recently, those principles are starting to appear in a rather surprising field: that of government, as various transparency initiatives around the world start to gain traction.

Sometimes, open government – or lack of it - can involve open source directly. A good example is the recent procurement scandal in Switzerland:

The Swiss federal government published in the Swiss Official Gazette of Commerce that it has granted a maintenance contract over CHF 42 million to Microsoft — however, without a prior tender. The monopolist apparently had been granted the contract under exclusion of any potential competition.

The Federal Office of Construction and Logistics (BBL) apparently signed the maintenance contract over Windows and Office licenses, SharePoint et cetera in February already. A tender had never been held, so competitors had never been given a chance to demonstrate their own products. This, however, is clearly against the official regulations for acquisition of resources. A speaker of the Open Source corporation group /ch/open announced that the decision would be contested in front of the Federal Court which, incidentally, is a known user of the suite.

Fortunately, the days when the free software world was powerless in the face of such abuses are long gone by. Led by Red Hat, a group of open source companies has fought back:

Red Hat is a leader of an appeal by 18 technology companies of a Swiss government agency’s award of a no-bid contract to Microsoft. The challenge raises important issues of openness in government and of a level playing field for open source and other competitors of Microsoft. Red Hat is seeking a public bidding process that allows for consideration of the technical and commercial advantages of open source software products.

The three-year contract, worth 14 million Swiss Francs per year, was awarded by the Swiss Federal Bureau for Building and Logistics (BBL) to Microsoft for standardized workstations, including applications, maintenance, and support. There was no public bidding process. The Swiss agency justified this no-bid procedure on the ground that there was no sufficient alternative to the Microsoft products.

Au contraire. Whatever one’s opinion as to Microsoft’s products, it is hard to ignore the existence of numerous competitive alternatives to them. Indeed, Kanton Solothurn, the City of Zurich, the Federal Agency for Computer Sciences and and Telecommunictions (BIT), the Federal Institute for Intellectual Property (IGE), and other Swiss agencies are already using some of those alternatives provided by Red Hat.

In a brief filed yesterday with Swiss Federal Administration Court, Red Hat and other concerned companies requested that the court reverse the agency decisions and hold a public bidding process. This public process will allow for fair consideration of the merits of open source and other non-Microsoft software products.

The court has accepted the appeal, temporarily at least:

The Federal Administrative Court of Switzerland has ruled invalid a software licence contract between a Swiss government agency and Microsoft, the Swiss press agency SDA reported today.

Yet another opaque procurement deal followed hot on the heels of the one in Switzerland:

The Romanian government is about to spend millions of euro on proprietary software, drawing flak from the country's budding open source movement. "This government is out of touch with reality."

The Romanian government announced its renewal of a framework software licence with Microsoft in the middle of May. The framework licence deal is worth 100 million euro in software licences to be used by government agencies between 2010 and 2012. Romania will also pay the software giant another 58 million euro this fall, as the final payment for the 2004 - 2009 framework licence agreement that expired last month.

The government further announced the awarding of a 300 million euro contract to a Romanian IT company for PC hardware and Microsoft software licences to be used in education.

As the President of the Free Software Foundation in Europe, Georg Greve wrote to me, Romania's action is particularly unfortunate since the country has been roundly criticised (along with Bulgaria) by the European Commission for its failure to combat deep-seated corruption in the country. Greve pointed out:

It seems ironic that the European Commission has to fine Microsoft repeatedly over sustained monopoly abuse, then transfers part of that money to Romania, which enjoyed the highest level of financial support ever granted to a candidate country in the history of the European Union, and the Romanian government then decides to return part of that money to Microsoft with close to no tangible benefit for Romania.

Considering the recent freeze of EU funds due to corruption in Bulgaria, this decision of the Romanian government seems careless and dangerous for the sustained economic growth of the country in more than one way: By endangering EU support, by increasing dependency on proprietary software for the economy, and by wasting funds that could have been used for much-needed infrastructure projects.

Switzerland and Romania are just two examples where transparency could help level the playing-field for open source, and allow its wider use in government. But beyond these specific cases where that would be good news for free software, there is a growing recognition that shining light on the murky processes of government through openness could bring benefits in many other ways.

To his credit, President Obama has decreed that openness will be the default setting for US government. In a statement entitled “Transparency and open government” he wrote:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.

I direct the Chief Technology Officer, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Administrator of General Services, to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB, that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum.The independent agencies should comply with the Open Government Directive.

Now, fine words butter no parsnips, but we have already seen some fruits of this initiative, notably with the creation of the site, whose purpose is:

to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. Although the initial launch of provides a limited portion of the rich variety of Federal datasets presently available, we invite you to actively participate in shaping the future of by suggesting additional datasets and site enhancements to provide seamless access and use of your Federal data.

Morever, independent organisations like the Sunlight Foundation (“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”) are starting to play a crucial role in holding politicians to their easy promises of openness in government.

The Sunlight Foundation is currently running a competition called “Apps for America 2: the challenge”:

Just as the federal government begins to provide data in Web developer-friendly formats, we're organizing Apps for America 2: The Challenge to demonstrate that when government makes data available, it makes itself more accountable and creates more trust and opportunity in its actions. The contest submissions will also show the creativity of developers in designing compelling applications that provide easy access and understanding for the public, while also showing how open data can save the government tens of millions of dollars by engaging the development community in application development at far cheaper rates than traditional government contractors.


While not required, bonus points go to using one of Sunlight's open source libraries, APIs or APIs and libraries of our partners like maplight, opensecrets, and!

All software you write has to be licensed under any OSI approved license

This initiative makes clear the close relationships between software code and legal code, and between open source and open government. It also shows how free software is beginning to impinge on and shape some of the most fundamental aspects of democracy – just as Richard Stallman intended.

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