Here, I’m obviously not referring to the football championship but to the outcome of an interesting thought experiment: which countries are making the best progress in adopting and supporting Free Software? As a resident of Norway, I’d like to think that I’m keeping my finger on the pulse here in a country that has achieved a lot in recent years: mandatory use of open standards, funding of important Free Software projects in education, and the encouragement of responsible procurement practices in the public sector.
Norway’s Own Goals
However, things don’t always go in the right direction. Recently, it has become known that the government will withdraw all financial support for the Norwegian Open Source Competence Center, founded to encourage and promote Free Software adoption in government and the public sector. One may, of course, question the achievements of the centre, especially when considering how much funding it has had and whether “value for money” has been delivered, or as everyone knows where any measure of politics is present, whether the impression of “value for money” has been delivered. Certainly, the centre has rolled out a number of services which do not seem to have gained massive popularity: kunnskapsbazaren (the knowledge bazaar) and delingsbazaren (the sharing bazaar) do not seem to have amassed much activity and appear, at least on the surface, as mostly static collections of links to other places, some of which are where the real activity is taking place.
But aside from such “knowledge repository” services, the centre does seem to have managed to provide the foundations for the wider use of Free Software, in particular arguing for and justifying the collaborative nature of Free Software within the legal framework of public sector procurement, as well as organising a yearly conference where interested parties can discuss such matters, present their own activities, and presumably establish the basis for wider collaboration. My own experience tells me that even if one isn’t involved with the more practical aspects of setting up such an event, such as the details of getting a venue in order, organising catering and so on, the other aspects can consume a lot of organising time and could quite easily take over the schedule of a number of full-time employees. (People going to volunteer conferences possibly don’t realise how many extra full-time positions, or the effective equivalent of such positions, have been conjured up from hours scraped together from people’s spare time.)
And it has also been noted that the centre has worked hard to spread the message on the ground, touring, giving presentations, producing materials – all important and underrated activities. So, in contrast to those who think that the centre is merely a way of creating jobs for the sake of it, I’m certainly willing to give those who have invested their energy in the centre the benefit of the doubt, even if I cannot honestly say that my awareness of their work has been particularly great. (Those who are so eager to criticise the centre should really take a long hard look at some other, well-established institutions for evidence of waste, lack of “value of money”, and failure to act in the public interest. I’m sure the list is pretty long if one really starts to dig.)
In Politics the Short Term Always Wins
In many ways – too many to get into here – Norwegian society offers plenty of contradictions. A recent addition appears regularly on the front pages of the tabloids, asserting a different angle at different times: there may be a financial crisis, but it apparently doesn’t affect Norway… or maybe it does, but here’s how you, the consumer, can profit from it (your mortgage is even cheaper and you can expect your house to increase even further in value!). I was told by someone many years my junior the other day as he tried to sell me a gym membership that “we’re in a recession” and so the chain is offering a discount to new recruits. I somehow doubt that the chain is really suffering or that the seller really knows what a recession is like.
Nevertheless, the R-word is a great way to tighten the purse strings and move money around to support different priorities, not all of them noble or sensible. There are plenty of people who will claim that public IT spending should be frugal and that it is cheaper to buy solutions off the shelf than it is to develop sustainable solutions collaboratively. But when so many organisations need to operate very similar solutions, and when everybody knows that such off-the-shelf solutions will probably need to be customised, frequently at considerable expense, then to buy something that is ostensibly ready-made and inexpensive is a demonstration of short-term thinking, only outdone by the head of IT at the nation’s parliament boasting about only needing to rely on a single vendor. Since he appears to have presided over the introduction of the iPad in the parliament – a matter of concern to those skeptical about the security implications – one wonders how many vendors are really involved and how this somehow automatically precludes the use of Free Software, anyway.
(Another great example of public IT spending has to be the story of a local council buying iPads for councillors while local schools have 60-year-old maps featuring the Soviet Union, with the spending being justified on the basis that people will print and copy less. It will be interesting whether the predicted savings will materialise after people figure out how to print from their iPads, I’m sure.)
The Role of the Referee
The public sector always attracts vested interests who make very large sums of money from selling licences and services and who will gladly perpetrate myths and untruths about Free Software and open standards in order to maintain their position, leaving it to others to correct the resulting misconceptions of the impressionable observer. There needs to be someone to remind public institutions that they are obliged to act in the public interest, conduct sustainable operations, and that the taxpayer should not have to cover every expense of those operations because they have delegated control to a vendor who decides which technologies they may or may not use, which roadmaps are available to them, burdening them with arbitrary migration exercises, extra and needless expenditure, and so on. Moreover, such institutions should protect those who have to interact with them from interference: taxpayers should not suddenly be required to buy a particular vendor’s products in order to discharge their public obligations.
As we have already seen, there is a need for education around the issues of sustainable public sector computing as well as a need to hold those responsible for public expenditure to account. Holding them to account should be more considered than the knee-jerk response of splashing their organisation across the media when something goes wrong, even if this does provide opportunities for parody; it should involve discussion of matters such as whether such organisations have enough resources, whether they are sharing the burden with others who have similar goals instead of needlessly duplicating effort, and whether they are appropriately resourced so that they may operate sustainably.
I don’t expect a competence centre to perform the task of referee in ensuring a properly functioning, sustainable, interoperable, transparent public sector, but just as a referee cannot do without his linesmen, it is clear that public institutions and the society that pays for them and gives them their role cannot do without an agent that helps and informs those institutions, ensuring that they interact fairly with technology providers both small and large, and operate in a manner that benefits both society and themselves, through the genuine empowerment that Free Software has to offer.