Evaluating Free Software for procurement

When you’re a public body, how do you evaluate Free Software solutions, and how do you procure them? Recently I’ve been getting this question fairly regularly. Here are the main resources I point people to.

First stop: A guideline from the European Commission on “public procurement of open source software“. This answers most of the fundamental questions, such as “is it ok for us to just download a program?” (yes), or “How can we specify that we really want Free Software and Open Standards?”. When it comes to evaluating potential solutions, the EC guideline is pretty curt.

The UK government has produced an “Open Source procurement toolkit“. This is a very useful resource. It highlights Open Standards and the need to avoid lock-in. The documents in the toolkit are clearly structured and well written.

They sometimes make the common mistake of describing “open source” and “commercial software” as opposites. Lots of commercial companies that have successfully built their business around Free Software would beg to differ. But this is a minor quibble with a generally very useful resource.

So let’s say you’re putting out a call for tender for a Free Software-based solution. How do you evaluate and compare the different bidders? Here, the Swedes have some helpful advice for you. In early 2011, one of Sweden’s two national procurement agencies launched a number of Free Software framework contracts. They specified some pretty detailed criteria for evaluating suppliers. Some of them are pretty nifty: In one example, bidders can score the highest number of points if they have committed code to a project, and the project has accepted and integrated it.

The original documents are in Swedish (of course), and have been translated into German. If you read neither language, this presentation by Daniel Melin has a pretty good overview. You’ll also want to check out this write-up of Sweden’s and other countries’ public sector approaches to procuring Free Software.

Thankfully, there are many other useful resources on this topic. If you want to see your favourite one included here, please get in touch!