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Open standards and open source software in central government

At the request of the House of Representatives, we have audited the potential savings to be achieved through the wider application of open standards and open source software in central government. We concentrated on the ministries and associated agencies and on existing computer programs for which realistic open alternatives are available in theory. We concluded amongst other things that the potential savings the government could make by making more use of open source software were limited. We also found that an approach to ICT based solely on the wish to cut costs was too restrictive.


Conclusions

Regarding the opportunities to migrate to open alternatives, we concluded that they depended on the organisational goals. Only when the goals have been translated into an information strategy and an ICT strategy can decisions be taken on the use of open or closed standards and software.

Regarding the replacement potential, we concluded that it could not be said in advance what part of a ministries' software could be made 'open'. A ministry's software landscape is a complex system with a large number of components that exchange information with each other and the outside world using many different standards. Furthermore, the software world is subject to rapid change and is releasing a continuous stream of new versions and applications, open, closed and everything in between. The transition from 'closed' to 'open' will therefore not be completed at a given moment. We also found that ministries currently already use a lot of open source software.

Software costs cannot be calculated directly from a ministry's accounts. We formed an indicative picture of the costs in 2009 from statements provided by the ministries, based in part on estimates. The ministries' total ICT costs (all hardware costs and all software costs) amounted to approximately €2.1 billion. Of this amount, approximately €88 million (about 4%) consisted of licence fees and approximately €170 million (about 8%) of maintenance costs for software for which there are open alternatives. The savings on a ministry's software costs can be calculated only by making cost/benefit analyses on a case by case basis. Such cost/benefit analyses would have to take account of implementation, operation (including management) and maintenance costs as well as procurement costs (including licence fees).

Regarding the advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and risks of introducing open technology, we concluded that there are many but they are not universally applicable. Whether certain advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and risks are applicable in a specific situation can only be determined by studying the conditions in that situation and through specific market research of the available software products and services.


Recommendations

We recommend that the expectations regarding the potential savings to be achieved from open technology be tempered and the approach be based chiefly on strategic goals. Approaching ICT from a purely cost angle is too limited.

We recommend that a clear distinction be made between the policy goals to improve operational management at the ministries (a responsibility of the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK)) and the policy goals to organise the software market (a responsibility of the Minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I)). Only when these distinct goals are defined clearly and unambiguously can the ministers agree the policy and account for it.

The chief information officer (CIO) for central government, along with the ministry CIOs, should play a key role in the strategic decision-making process. He should have the power to implement a consistent ICT strategy at the ministries, taking account of ministry-specific ICT requirements.

We recommend that the Minister of BZK, who coordinates government ICT policy, determine the extent to which ministries base their software decisions on strategic goals and define and periodically review the decision criteria. We also recommend that the minister ensure that all ministries satisfy the criteria by mid-2012 and regularly inform the House of Representatives of their progress.


Response

The Minister of BZK responded to our report on behalf of himself and the Minister of EL&I on 9 March 2011. He agreed with our conclusions but made a number of comments. He noted, for example, that all ministries have had an information strategy and associated ICT strategy since 2009. He also noted that it is possible to identify closed applications that can be replaced with open alternatives. In response to our recommendations, the minister wrote that he would consult the Minister of EL&I with a view to making a sharper distinction between the policy goals for operational management and for market organisation in the future. He also wrote that the position of the CIO for central government and the ministry CIOs had recently been strengthened.


Background

Standards are agreements on the form in which information is exchanged. Examples include agreements on the meaning of data and agreements on the way in which data are transmitted. In addition to standards that are set by a supplier and that may be used only with the supplier's permission (closed standards), there are open standards that everyone can use freely.

In the case of open source software, users can see and alter the computer programs' source code. In the case of closed (proprietary) software, by contrast, the user does not have permission to see the source code and only the original supplier has the right to alter the software and the connections with other computer programs.

The House of Representatives wondered whether the phasing out of closed standards and the introduction of open source software would improve the operation of market forces and save costs for the government. In May 2010, for example, it asked the Court of Audit to study: 

  • the scenarios to make less use of closed standards and introduce open source software; 
  • what part of the closed standards and software could be replaced with open alternatives; 
  • what the current ICT costs are, what they would be after the introduction of open standards and open source software and what savings are possible; 
  • how long the transition from closed to open standards would take; 
  • what advantages and disadvantages the Court of Audit could identify apart from cost savings, and the conditions necessary for the implementation of open standards and open source software.
 

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