Open Source Software: Good enough for Croatia, good enough for Chapel Hill

As a citizen, I came to my first Chapel Hill Technology Advisory Board meeting with a list of technology-related propositions that would help our town increase transparency while improving operational effeciency. Part of my proposal hinged on the use of open source software (OSS) – software that is flexible, reliable, transparent, “evergreen” and, based on selecting the proper open licensing, always in the public domain.

Various U.S. and European Union jurisdictions have whole-heartedly adopted both open-standards and the open source software (OSS) that supports those formats. For instance, Massachusetts’ is requiring use of Open Document (ODF) formats for longterm document retention.

Under my initiative, our citizen-owned information assets – the town’s geographical, environmental, financial, governance [minutes of meetings, etc.] records – would remain free and forever unencumbered by proprietary format and software restrictions.

Oh, and it would save us taxpayers a chunk of bucks – like the $253,000 our town unnecessarily spent on Microsoft Office license renewals (we could’ve doubled some of our town’s social program outlays on that savings alone).

I had some success, both before and after I joined the town’s Tech Board, getting limited Council adoption of a few open governance proposals. Open source adoption was a tougher nut to crack as both top town management and some IT staff were highly resistive to change.

Today’s Newsforge carries an article on Croatia’s adoption of OSS.

Last month the Croatian government adopted an open source software policy and issued guidelines for developing and using open source software in the government institutions. The Croatian government is concerned that proprietary software leads to too much dependence on the software suppliers. Open source software will make the government’s work more transparent, according to the government’s document, entitled “Open Source Software Policy.”

The document includes the following guidelines:

  • Government institutions will choose and/or develop open source solutions as much as possible, instead of using closed source alternatives.
  • The government will support development of closed source solutions that use open standards for protocols and file formats, and which are developed in Croatia.
  • The government will support the use of open source programs and open standards outside of its institutions.
  • The government will support the use of open source solutions in educational institutions; both closed and open source solutions will be equally presented to students

Domagoj Juricic, deputy state secretary at the Central State Administrative Office for e-Croatia and the leader of this project, explains what made the government publish the policy: “The use of information technology in government administration bodies is increasingly becoming important. So far, most of the software we use is proprietary software, so we cannot modify or complement it, or link software from different vendors. These software products impose rigid commercial conditions of use and limit our possibilities. In this way, government administration bodies may be led into a dependent position on the supplier of the software. This could lead to closed information systems, which make the success and efficiency of our eAdministration project more difficult.

Beyond efficiencies, adaptability, etc. Croatia desired control of their information assets:

“The state administration bodies create and exchange a lot of electronic documents,” Juricic says. “There is a great danger that documents cannot be opened and presented in readable form after a certain time, because we don’t have the licence anymore of the proprietary software, or the vendor can seize support of the old types of documents. Therefore we require the state administration bodies to use open standards for creating electronic documents.”

Now, while the Council, which nearly unanimously and quite precipitously, ditched our Technology Board, the necessity for implementing open standards, adopting agile technology-enhanced work processes, using the ‘net and ‘net-based tools to improve transparency and increasing productivity have not gone away.

The citizen chorus is gone but the song remains to be sung. Supposedly the Council will redress this issue come Fall.

And, yes, like many things in life that are worthwhile, implementing these changes can and will be difficult. Croatia’s government realizes that, so should we.

Kosturjak warns against euphoria with the policy. “Although the Croatian open source community is very positive about the open source software policy, we’ll see how serious the Croatian government is when the next step comes: the implementation of the policy. This will not be easy, as there are obvious practical problems. For example, most of the government bodies have now proprietary technologies together with proprietary file formats implemented in their IT systems. Migration to open standards and open source software can be technically difficult and painful. From the non-technical point of view, this is also a political and financial issue. We (the open source advocates) hope that the Croatian government will have the strength to actually implement the open source policy. Until that moment, the policy is just like an unsent letter.”


One response to “Open Source Software: Good enough for Croatia, good enough for Chapel Hill”

  1. Domagoj Juricic Avatar

    Thank you for comments on our efforts to promote and use OSS in Croatia. For us it is a question much more attached with open standards which are our concerns and not on a clasical debate Proprietary vs. Free software. I agree with you that the following steps will be much harder than just making a policy document but one must begin from somewhere. Kind regards. DJ

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