Government takes cautionary stance on open source

The Australian government has no plans to support legislation which requires open source software solutions to be included in all future departmental information and communication technology (ICT) contracts, and will continue to uphold a neutral stance on open-source software, the National Office of Information Economy (NOIE) has stated.

Speaking at the Gartner Inc. Open Source conference in Sydney on Tuesday, NOIE general manager of information management strategy and governance Steve Alford said the federal government was keen to ensure information on open source software was accessible to all departmental agencies. Nevertheless, open-source software would need to prove its worth on a case-by-case basis in order to gain a place in the government’s ICT line-up.

“Open-source solutions have to compete in this space of discretionary spend and replacing what’s already there,” Alford said.

Alford said the government’s outlook on open source was one of “caution”.

“The government is a mature user of IT — there are not many ‘green fields’ to utilize,” he said.

He added the government has several large-scale users of ICT, including the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Health and Centrelink, which use 14 to 16 percent of their total budgets on ICT.

Currently, 85 to 90 percent of departmental agencies’ ICT funds is taken up with existing outsourcing arrangements, including the depreciation of assets and licensing fees, Alford said. This left 10 to 15 percent of the total ICT budget available to departments as discretionary spend.

Alford said open-source software still needed good reference sites to prove its worth to the government.

“Over the next 18 months we will start to see its merits, but at present, we don’t have the measures to monitor this now,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of the government introducing legislative standards which would affect the industry as a whole, Alford said there was no need for such measures because take-up of open-source solutions would be driven by business demand.

He admitted however, that the government was in the process of finalizing a new interoperability framework to ensure systems from different agencies could operate together. Once passed, the framework would require all agencies to abide by new interoperability standards, to be regulated by the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD), he said.

The government was also funding and promoting the dissemination of information on open source in a bid to “level the playing field”, he said.

Commenting on the pros of cons of open source software within the public sector, Gartner research director Nikos Drakos reflected Alford’s sentiments.

Drakos said while there was very little risk in opening up government agencies to the opportunity of utilizing open source software, taking preferential action by forcing agencies to subscribe to open source software could damage their ability to get support from service providers or limit interoperability with other organizations.

Additionally, open source software may increase the risk of “rogue” opportunities within the department if the government as a whole is trying to implement a uniform system, he said.

“(Agencies) need discipline with open source software – both with regards to inbound and outbound information or contact,” he said.

Despite urging prudence, Drakos recommended governments promote open source software education and training, as well as invest in pilot trials and support partnerships which enable agencies to cradle their own open source development.

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