Encouraging the use of open source software in government

I spent yesterday evening at the British Computer Society on the panel of an event organised by the Open Source Specialist Group, nominally discussing the skills required to build Content Management Systems (CMS) using open source software (OSS). We heard a lot about a the features and advantages of CMS such as Joomla, Drupal and Plone and the document management system Alfresco, and I contributed some details of Apache Lucene/Solr and Xapian which can be used in concert with all of these systems (and are usually available as plug-in modules).

We also considered how best to encourage the further use of OSS within the UK government, and I’ve tried to list some of the suggestions that were made – this is in no way a complete list, but it’s a start.

  • Look at what has been done with OSS in other countries in the government sector – e.g. the PloneGov initiative. A lot of this knowledge and expertise should be transferable.
  • Publicise current use within government – we all know that OSS is already being used on government websites and intranets, but if this can be more widely known it will encourage further use of OSS within the sector. We hear that there are already ‘skunkworks’ teams in government using open source and open standards – make sure we hear more about what they build.
  • Support the open source projects themselves – this could be by contributing code developed within government back to OSS projects, or by supporting the open source community in other ways – for example, funding the creation of better documentation, or making it easier to run open source conferences (perhaps with the help of local goverment).
  • Improve the procurement process to better understand open source as a viable alternative and to ease its adoption (for example, many open source companies are smaller than closed source vendors and thus less able to engage in lengthy and expensive procurement rounds).
  • Understanding that comparing OSS to a closed source product is often like comparing apples to oranges – OSS provides a highly flexible toolkit where the user chooses what features they want, as opposed to a closed source product where feature sets are fixed by the vendor. During procurement, simple ‘check box’ lists of required features are thus not always applicable.
  • Listen more to OSS experts and bringing them into goverment to help educate and inform.
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