Common sense in the Basque Country

Sometimes, a government just gets it right. The Basque Country in Spain has just introduced a policy that’s eminently sensible: Software developed with public funds will be released as Free Software by default. Citizens, companies, and other public bodies will be able to use, study, share and improve that software as they see fit. Before contracting out software development, public bodies are also asked to check whether the program they need already exists. (Now that’s revolutionary, right?)

In most places, it’s the other way round: People pay taxes, and the public sector spends part of that money on companies that develop proprietary software, which the taxpayers can’t get hold of, let alone use.

Taxpayers often end up paying over and over again to have very similar software developed, because public bodies normally don’t exchange software with each other; and if they wanted to, they couldn’t, because they acquired that software under a proprietary license.

There are some initiatives to fix this, notably Joinup (formerly OSOR) on the European level (disclosure: In 2006-2009, I was working for one of the organisations contracted by the EC to set up OSOR) and Adullact in France.

But when it comes to routinely releasing public sector programs under Free Software licenses, it’s the Spanish regions that are in the lead. Andalusia has been doing it for a while, as have Catalonia, Galicia, and Extremadura. Now the Basque Country has joined them. (Article by El Pais in Spanish, with more links.)

I was given the opportunity to comment when this policy was being developed, and all I can really say about it is “See, that wasn’t so hard”. There’s no reason why every other government out there couldn’t do the same thing.

Now, there will be those who say “but it’s bad for business”. Wrong, entirely. The Basque Country’s association of Free Software companies (ESLE) seems happy enough. About two years ago, an entrepreneur from the region told me: “You know how the Andalusians have this policy about releasing public sector software? The companies down there are getting really good at what they do, and they’re starting to eat our lunch. We need a policy like that here in the Basque Country too.”

Now they have one. Their government has realised that Free Software means helps to develop businesses and IT skills in their region, and drives regional development. It also lets the public sector get much better value for its investments in software. And citizens get to see what the public sector does with their taxes.

Governments everywhere should take note.