Introduction to the Guidelines

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Open source software (OSS) can be highly beneficial to those who choose to harness it. One of the key strengths of OSS is its adaptability: anyone can reuse or modify it to best suit their needs, and therefore, its use is not restricted to any single domain or user group. Public administrations represent one such user group which stands to gain from the use of OSS when developing and implementing IT solutions for both internal processes and the delivery of digital public services.

Nevertheless, the adoption of OSS across public administrations has historically been a slow and often unsustainable journey. There are many examples of public administrations at the national or local level adopting OSS, only to switch back to a proprietary solution at a later stage. This happens for many reasons, be it due to compatibility issues or a change of heart at the managerial level. However, across public administrations of all sizes, there are many instances of flourishing OSS communities with diverse user bases and a wide array of contributors. The varying levels of success among public administrations in fostering OSS communities raises questions about the factors that determine their sustainability.

Recognising the different experiences of public administrations in adopting and maintaining OSS and building on the belief that the sustainability of open source projects relies heavily on the communities around them, the European Commission’s Open Source Observatory (OSOR) has put together dedicated Guidelines for Sustainable Open Source Communities in the Public Sector. The purpose of the Guidelines is to debunk the myth that working with OSS is challenging, resource intense, and requires domain-specific knowledge. They aim to demonstrate that there are different ways to launch an OSS project and a community around it within a public administration and to guide readers through this process. Whilst many guidelines on OSS community-building exist, such as the Linux[1] or GitHub[2] Open Source Guides, there is a gap to fill when it comes to the sustainable OSS community-building in the public sector.

First published in 2020, the Guidelines for Sustainable Open Source Communities in the Public Sector are for civil servants at all administrative levels, project managers, IT developers, and OSS enthusiasts looking to start or participate in an OSS project or for individuals who are simply curious about what such an endeavour might entail.

The Guidelines are based on the assumption that public administrations should not merely reuse OSS (i.e. be consumers) but rather be active members and contributors to the communities that exist around this software.

The Guidelines were put together based on research consisting of a literature review, a dedicated survey, and five case studies on the following sustainable OSS communities in the public sector: the Integreat software developed outside the public sector and used by German municipalities; the use of the CONSUL platform by the Groningen municipality in the Netherlands; Lutece software developed by the City of Paris; the Developers Italia community launched by the Italian government; and the geospatial OSKARI software developed in Finland.


Figure 1 Case studies on the sustainability of open source communities

The research methods used to produce the Guidelines are briefly described in the Methodological Note chapter and the research results are available in an analysis document, Key Success Factors of Sustainable Open Source Communities published on the OSOR Knowledge Centre.

There are two general approaches that public administrations can take to engage with OSS. They can either join an existing OSS community or create one from scratch. In both cases, it is crucial for public administrations to address some key questions internally before deciding on how to best engage in or launch a public sector OSS community. Therefore, the Guidelines consist of the following three key chapters:

  1. Setting the foundation for sustainable open source engagements – detailing the type of questions that should be addressed within public administrations before committing to an OSS engagement and outlining the two main approaches one can take to achieve this goal.
  2. Joining an existing community – describing the sustainable way to join an existing OSS community and reuse its software if the software meets a public administration’s needs.
  3. Building your own public sector OSS community – a detailed breakdown of the steps that should be taken and questions that need to be answered to build a sustainable OSS public sector community.

The Guidelines have been designed with a user-centric approach so that readers can easily understand the key aspects of engaging with OSS in public administrations, either by launching a new OSS community or by joining an existing one. For this reason, the Guidelines follow a Q&A structure, posing and answering the most pertinent questions associated with the sustainability of OSS in the public sector.

This is an updated version of the Guidelines with additional recommendations and resources following a consultation with the open source community. We have included further recommendations on creating a favourable environment in your public administration for working with OSS, creating an open and diverse community, advice on how to approach the departure of members, and more.

The Guidelines are part of the European Commission’s work to promote the sharing and reuse of IT solutions within public administrations under the under the Sharing and Reuse Action[3].