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Horseplay in Public Procurement? “Standards!”

There is a classic XKCD comic strip where the programmer, “slacking off” in the office and taking a break from doing work, clearly engaging in horseplay, issues the retort “Compiling!” to get his supervisor or peers off his back. It is seen as the ultimate excuse for not doing one’s work, immediately curtailing any further investigation of what really is going on in the corridor. Having recently been investigating some strategic public sector purchasing decisions, it occurred to me that something similar is going on in that area as well.

There’s an interesting case that came up a few years ago: Oslo municipality sought to acquire infrastructure for e-mail and related functionality. The scope of the tender covered “at least 30000 accounts” for client and server software, services and assistance, which is a pretty big tender but not unexpected given that the municipality is one of the largest single employers in Norway with almost 50000 employees (more statistics available here). Unfortunately, the additional documents are no longer available (and are generally not publicly available at the state procurement portal – you have to register as an interested party), but they are quoted in various places. Translating one particular requirement…

“Oslo municipality has standardised on Microsoft Office as office productivity software. It is therefore expected that solutions use MS Outlook 2003 and later as client.”

Two places where the offending requirements are reproduced are in complaints to the state procurement panel: 2009/124 and 2009/153. In these very similar complaints, it is pointed out that alternatives to Outlook can be offered as options (this is in the original tender), but that the municipality would only test proposed solutions with Outlook. As justification for insisting on Outlook compatibility, the municipality claimed that they had found “six different large companies providing relevant software in connection with the drafting of the requirements… all of which can be used together with Outlook”, and thus there was a basis for real competition. As a result, both complaints were rejected.

The Illusion of Compatibility

Now, one might claim that it is perfectly reasonable to want to acquire systems that work with the ones you already have. It is a bit like saying, “I’ve bought all this riding equipment: of course I want a horse!” The deeper issue here is whether anyone should be allowed to specify product compatibility to limit competition. In other words, when you just need transport to get around, why have you made your requirements so specific that you will only ever be getting a horse?

It is all very well demanding compatibility with a specific product, but when the means by which compatibility can be achieved are controlled by the vendor of that product, it is never going to be a fair competition for anyone trying to provide compatibility for their own separate products and solutions, especially when the vendor of the specified product is known to have used compatibility breakage to deliberately undermine the viability of competitors’ products. One response to this pitfall is to insist that those writing procurement tenders specify standards instead of products and that these standards must be genuinely open and not de-facto proprietary standards.

Unfortunately, the regulators of procurement do not seem to go even this far. The Norwegian government states that public sector institutions must support various standards, although the directorate concerned appears to have changed these obligations from the original directive and now insists that the dubious, forcibly- and incompletely-standardised Office Open XML document format must be accepted by the public sector in communications; they have also weakened the Internet publishing requirements for public sector institutions by permitting the use of various encumbered, cartel-controlled audio and video formats. For these changes, entertained in a review process, we can thank the likes of Statistics Norway who wanted “Word format” as well as OOXML to be permitted in the list of acceptable “standards”.

In any case, such directives only cover the surface of public sector activity, and the list of standards do not in general cover anything more than storage and interchange formats plus basic communications standards. This leaves quite a gap where established Internet standards exist but are not mandated, thus allowing proprietary protocols and technologies to insert themselves into infrastructure and pervert the processes of procurement and systems integration.

The Pretense of “Standards!”

But even if open standards were mandated in the public sector – a worthy and necessary measure – that wouldn’t mean that our work to ensure a level playing field – fairness in procurement – would be done. Because vendors can always advertise compliance with standards, they can still insist that their products be considered in any procurement contest, and even if those products do notionally support standards it does not mean that they will end up using them when deployed. For example, from the case of the Oslo municipality e-mail system, the councillor with responsibility for finance and development indicated the following:

“Oslo municipality is a complicated and comprehensive organisation and must take existing integration with specialist/bespoke systems into account. A procurement of other [non-Microsoft] end-user software will therefore result in unnecessary increases in costs for the municipality.”

In other words, even if existing software was acquired under the pretense that it supported standards, in deployment it may actually only function with other software using proprietary mechanisms, and the result of this is that newly-acquired software must also support these proprietary mechanisms. And so, a proprietary infrastructure grows, actively repelling components that employ open standards, with its custodians insisting that it is the fault of standards-compliant software that such an infrastructure would need to be dismantled almost in its entirety and replaced if even one standards-compliant component were to be admitted.

Who benefits the most from this? The vendor peddling the proprietary platforms and technologies that enable this morass of interdependency, of course. Make no mistake: any initial convenience promised by such a vendor fades away when the task of having to pursue an infrastructure strategy not dictated by outside interests is brought to bear on the purchaser. But such tasks are work, of course, and if there’s a way of avoiding it and insisting it doesn’t need attending to, a distraction can always be found.

And so, the horseplay continues under the excuse of “Standards!” when there is no real intent to uphold them or engage in the real work of maintaining a sustainable infrastructure that does not exclude open competition or channel public money to preferred vendors. Unlike the character in the comic strip whose code probably is still compiling, certain public sector institutions would have experienced a compilation error and be found out. It appears, unfortunately, that it is our job to peer around the cubicle partition and see what is happening on screen and perhaps to investigate the noises coming from the corridor. After all, our institutions don’t seem to be particularly concerned about doing so.

One Response to “Horseplay in Public Procurement? “Standards!””

  1. Martin Steffen Says:

    A thought-out, sober, and reasoned opinion piece, in refreshing contrast to some of the declarations used by the public sector resp. politicians for justifying procurement decisions.