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Open Source and the Language of Government

by Tim Conway •
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Nothing better illustrates the difference between the language government agencies use, and what suppliers hear, than the issue of open source software. It seems that the term "support" has a different meaning for each group.

Comments regarding the „support‟ available for open source applications have been made by a number of senior government CIOs as reported recently in the Australian IT and ZD Net. The CIO‟s comments were interpreted as indicating government agencies don‟t and won‟t use open source software, or in the extreme interpretation, that open source is somehow “barred” from use in the public sector. This has encouraged a strident reaction from the open source community for what they heard as ill-founded criticism of many widely-used applications.

The key word here is „support‟ and the subtle difference in its meaning when used by, on the one hand, a government CIO, and on the other, by an open source developer: The open source community knows that if you discover a bug and post a report, more often than not it will be addressed very rapidly by the development community around the product. Problem resolved. That‟s the beauty of open source.

But that‟s not what government CIOs are talking about when they speak of „support‟. They are talking about „Support‟. The upper-case makes a significant difference, because this Support has specific meaning contractually. It relates to service level agreements under which government or any large organisation deploys its systems. Under such contracts, service providers support agencies around standard operating environments. They provide software distribution and configuration management with agreed responsibilities regarding levels of response and subject matter expertise.

These services are critical, and their effective delivery forms the key element of the relationship between the government agency and the service delivery organisation, with associated risk management. At present (with some exceptions) open source applications sit uncomfortably within these service providing organisations. That‟s where the barrier to open source adoption lies.

The issue is not about the attitude of government agencies to open source in terms of meeting requirements, or the inability of the open source community to support its software; it‟s about marketing to, and encouraging adoption by, IT service providers who currently stand as the “big throat to choke”, as they provide the necessary „Support‟ for public sector ICT.

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