Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Public Money, Public Code, Public Control

An interesting article published by the UK Government Digital Service was referenced in a response to the LWN.net coverage of the recently-launched “Public Money, Public Code” campaign. Arguably, the article focuses a little too much on “in the open” and perhaps not enough on the matter of control. Transparency is a good thing, collaboration is a good thing, no-one can really argue about spending less tax money and getting more out of it, but it is the matter of control that makes this campaign and similar initiatives so important.

In one of the comments on the referenced article you can already see the kind of resistance that this worthy and overdue initiative will meet. There is this idea that the public sector should just buy stuff from companies and not be in the business of writing software. Of course, this denies the reality of delivering solutions where you have to pay attention to customer needs and not just have some package thrown through the doorway of the customer as big bucks are exchanged for the privilege. And where the public sector ends up managing its vendors, you inevitably get an under-resourced customer paying consultants to manage those vendors, maybe even their own consultant colleagues. Guess how that works out!

There is a culture of proprietary software vendors touting their wares or skills to public sector departments, undoubtedly insisting that their products are a result of their own technological excellence and that they are doing their customers a favour by merely doing business with them. But at the same time, those vendors need a steady – perhaps generous – stream of revenue consisting largely of public money. Those vendors do not want their customers to have any real control: they want their customers to be obliged to come back year after year for updates, support, further sales, and so on; they want more revenue opportunities rather than their customers empowering themselves and collaborating with each other. So who really needs whom here?

Some of these vendors undoubtedly think that the public sector is some kind of vehicle to support and fund enterprises. (Small- and medium-sized enterprises are often mentioned, but the big winners are usually the corporate giants.) Some may even think that the public sector is a vehicle for “innovation” where publicly-funded work gets siphoned off for businesses to exploit. Neither of these things cultivate a sustainable public sector, nor do they even create wealth effectively in wider society: they lock organisations into awkward, even perilous technological dependencies, and they undermine competition while inhibiting the spread of high-quality solutions and the effective delivery of services.

Unfortunately, certain flavours of government hate the idea that the state might be in a role of actually doing anything itself, preferring that its role be limited to delegating everything to “the market” where private businesses will magically do everything better and cheaper. In practice, under such conditions, some people may benefit (usually the rich and well-represented) but many others often lose out. And it is not unknown for the taxpayer to have to pick up the bill to fix the resulting mess that gets produced, anyway.

We need sustainable public services and a sustainable software-producing economy. By insisting on Free Software – public code – we can build the foundations of sustainability by promoting interoperability and sharing, maximising the opportunities for those wishing to improve public services by upholding proper competition and establishing fair relationships between customers and vendors. But this also obliges us to be vigilant to ensure that where politicians claim to support this initiative, they do not try and limit its impact by directing money away from software development to the more easily subverted process of procurement, while claiming that procured systems not be subject to the same demands.

Indeed, we should seek to expand our campaigning to cover public procurement in general. When public money is used to deliver any kind of system or service, it should not matter whether the code existed in some form already or not: it should be Free Software. Otherwise, we indulge those who put their own profits before the interests of a well-run public sector and a functioning society.

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