Open Government Requires Open IT

The government should benefit from competition.

The increasingly politicized open-source movement is lobbying governments around the world to dump closed-source software as a matter of principle.

Just a few weeks ago, a group of LinuxWorld attendees marched on San Francisco City Hall calling for the adoption of the misnamed Digital Software Security Act, a proposed bill that would require all software developed for or used by California state government to be licensed using a GNU General Public License-style copyright. We think this bill wont get close to becoming law, and it shouldnt. Forcing a government to use certain tools even in areas where these tools are inadequate or absent is bad governance.

There are better ways for government agencies to use IT to fulfill their mandates. A democratic government has a special responsibility to be publicly accountable to all its citizens and to make information available to them. Whats needed is not open-source software per se, but open standards, open file formats and an open bidding process.

Requiring government IT systems to implement open standards—by which we mean royalty-free standards approved by established bodies—and use publicly documented data formats is critical. Allowing years of data entry investment to be tied to a single product isnt sound policy. Furthermore, no citizen should be required to buy specific software, such as Microsofts Word or Excel or Corels WordPerfect, to access public data. Thats government-mandated lining of private pockets. A freely distributed, multiplatform viewer such as Adobe Acrobat Reader is one counterexample; an open format such as RTF or HTML is even better.

The competitive bidding process relies on the ability of multiple suppliers to meet a set of criteria, as well as the possibility that a new supplier could displace an established one by doing the same job better, cheaper or faster. Open standards and open data formats allow government to benefit from the dynamics of the free market.

Without question, governments should consider open-source packages; the ability to inspect and freely change source code as well as low licensing costs are major benefits. But the ability to choose a more appropriate closed-source—but standards-compliant—package is equally in the public interest.