Free Software in the Church: From principles to practice

Several interesting conversations resulted from my visit to the European Christian Internet Conference. One of them was with a pastor (and computer scientist) who works in the church administration of the Rhineland in Germany. He shared with me a draft strategy (pdf, in German) to move the churches in his region towards Free Software. He asked me to comment, and I’m happy to do so.

The pastor will also be joining one of FSFE’s upcoming Fellowship meetings in Düsseldorf, Germany, to get more input from the Free Software supporters there. I love seeing connections like these come together.

The first problem he’s encountering with the strategy is getting his superiors to understand that IT is actually part and parcel of what the church does in this world, and should follow the organisation’s guidelines.

Eine IT-Strategie als eine „Ordnung“ der Kirche dient dazu, den Verkündigungsauftrag der Kirche zu unterstützen. Sie ist eine menschliche Ordnung, die der presbyterial-synodalen Ordnung der EKiR Rechnung trägt und selbst soweit es geht den Auftrag der Kirche widerspiegelt.

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome, and he’ll need to do some more work to explain this. Explaining ethics-based software to an ethics-based institution shouldn’t be too hard; but it still requires effort.

Next, the strategy document brings up cost as a key point in favour of Free Software:

Da der Einsatz von IT der Verwirklichung des Auftrages der Kirche dient und kein Selbstzweck ist, unterliegt der Einsatz von IT der Wirtschaftlichkeit, damit die Kirche als gute Haushälterin der ihr anvertrauten Gaben diese soweit wie möglich für Verkündigung, Seelsorge, Diakonie und das Eintreten für Frieden, Gerechtigkeit und Bewahrung der Schöpfung einsetzen kann.

Free Software is very often cheaper to deploy and use than non-free programs. But for us at FSFE, that’s never the primary argument. Instead, we always first talk about how Free Software empowers users and puts them in control of their computing. If you say “this is cheaper than that”, that’s both easy and pretty convincing – until the competitor decides to dramatically lower his prices, or presents an alternative calculation with a different methodology.

We’ve learned that Total Cost of Ownership in particular is a pretty insidious concept. It sounds perfectly reasonable, but since there are many different ways to calculate it, the competitor with the bigger PR budget will eventually win out.

So instead of cost, the strategy should highlight how Free Software and the Church’s ideas fit together, and why Free Software is a fundamentally better choice. This is also why the strategy document would be more effective if it used the term Free Software rather than open source.

So now we’ve dealt with the principles. Off we go with the practical stuff:

IT-Anforderungen sollen durch Standardanwendungen, die ggf. angepasst werden, abgedeckt werden. Proprietäre Software und Infrastruktur kommen nur zum Einsatz, wenn Standardlösungen nicht die notwendigen Anforderungen erfüllen können. In der Regel begründen nur spezielle kirchliche Anforderungen die Notwendigkeit von Eigenentwicklungen.

Three points deserve improvement here. First, what are “standard applications” and “standard solutions”? Better to talk about “Free Software applications / solutions”, with a footnote pointing to the Free Software definition. Many similar documents also talk about programs and solutions under “OSI-certified licenses“.

Rather than saying that “proprietary software will only be used if standard solutions (i.e. Free Software solutions) cannot meet the necessary requirements”, those who want to deploy non-free software should be asked (or, if possible, required) to first conduct a thorough review of potential Free Software solutions, and document why none of them are suitable.

Sometimes organisations have requirements that aren’t met by existing software. In cases where the Church is paying for new programs to be developed, it should make sure those programs are published as Free Software, and should get hold of the copyright on the code.

Open-Source-Lösungen sind zu präferieren, offener Quelltext ermöglicht im Zweifelsfalle, nachvollziehen zu können, wie die Software funktioniert. In der EKiR erarbeitete Lösungen kommen wiederum der Allgemeinheit zu Gute (Apg 20,35). Bei Beschaffungsmaßnahmen sind Ziele der Nachhaltigkeit und des gerechten Wirtschaftens zu bedenken und in die Abwägung zur Wirtschaftlichkeit einzubeziehen.
Preferring Free Software solutions in principle is a statement of intent, not a strategy. If the idea here is to provide more reasons for using Free Software, then there are many good arguments. The ability to review the source code is just one of them, and for this particular organisation, it’s probably not the strongest one. In particular, it would be wise to follow the practice recently adopted by the UK government, and figure future exit costs into the price of any new solution.
Um einen offenen und barrierefreien Datenaustausch zu ermöglichen, sollen zukünftig das „Open Document Format“ (ODF) sowie offene-Standards (XML) verwendet werden.
A clear preference for ODF as an Open Standard is great. However, there are other document types out there. There’s nothing on how the organisation will get from its current dependence on proprietary file formats to the future Open Standards practice. The UK government’s proposal on “Sharing or collaborating with government documents” is an excellent reference here.
Dokumenten-Management- und Archivierungssystem: Der Aufbau eines öffentlichen, zentralen Dokumenten-Auskunfts- und Archivierungssystems (s. Open-Data-Konzept) ist in Abstimmung mit den entsprechenden Fachabteilungen anzustreben,[...]

If you’re talking about long-term archiving, formats based on Open Standards aren’t only the sensible choice – they’re the only choice. Think of the Church what you will, but unlike the IT industry, at least they don’t define “long term” as “the next five years”.

While this strategy draft still needs quite a bit of work, it’s certainly going in the right direction. I very much welcome the commitment of this pastor to make a real difference in his organisation, and I’m grateful for the chance to support this effort.