To increase the competence in the usage of new technologies, a Digital Government Directorate under the Ministry of the Interior is being formed in Netherlands. At the same time, the Dutch government has a set out to using more open source within the government, summarised under the phrase “Open, unless…”. In order to increase the understanding of how the shift to open source can be used within the public sector, the Ministry of the Interior contracted the consultancy ANNE for a report.
The research team were given four main questions to be investigated and the task to develop policy recommendations based on the collected evidence:
- What are the main success and failure factors of open source communities?
- What are important characteristics of developers who are active in open source communities?
- What are the expectations of developers and governments with regard to cooperation in the development and management of open source software?
- What are the experiences of developers and governments with regard to cooperation in the development and management of open source software?
The final report has been published in Dutch under the name “Shirt, pak, zolder & vergadertafel. Underzoek naar Open Source Communities” on 8 April 2021 and is based mainly on a literature review and expert interviews.
What is open source
For those uninitiated, the report provides the genesis of the idea of open source, initially only referred to as free software, and how this turned into a big business. Today, open source has driven many major acquisitions, worth tens of billions, notably the purchase of Red Hat through IBM and GitHub through Microsoft. It has also reshaped how companies think about intellectual property in the software world, turning Microsoft from a staunch opponent of open source into an advocate.
The report shines a light specifically on the Dutch involvement in open source. According to one of the interviewees, today the Netherlands are not in the leading group regarding open source development anymore, noting the involvement of the European Commission in driving the continued development of important software, such as the Apache web server and the SSL encryption software.
Investigating the main characteristics of open source communities, the report describes them as a collection of islands, like in a kaleidoscope: There is not one open source community, but rather communities are being formed around projects that are organised internally in a hierarchical manner, giving power to “core contributors”.
A typical open source developer does not exist, according to the authors – though that developer will likely be a man. Yet the motivations for contributing code into a project can range from idealism, to a platform to showcase one’s skills to simple economic interests. The authors posit that this diversity of interests is what makes open source communities work.
More than code
Open source software is computer code of course, but the report highlights, under the moniker “code, license, community”, that it is still more than just code. These aspects are directly intertwined, as the freedoms of the license enables the collaborative development of code, through the creation of communities around projects.
Especially the last aspect present challenges for the public sector, according to the interviewees of the report. Rather than just the purchase of a license, “taking responsibility plays a role”. Simply tendering a product and requiring the result to be made available as open source won’t provide the real benefits of open source to the public sector, which would actively involve the responsible body in the development and thus shape the end result.
The report ends with recommendations aimed at stimulating open source working and development in the government. The authors advise the government to adjust tendering within the public sector, to make it better suited for small companies and open source, as well as to increase the level of competence on all levels of government. They also suggest to investigate the possibility to “sharpen” the exceptions to “Open, unless…” and to provide more challenging work to developers, with the aim to increase their motivation.
Speaking to the OSOR, Koos Steenbergen, Project Manager Open Source at the Ministry of the Interior showed himself optimistic toward the increased usage of open source: “The department of the Interior is putting new policies in place to advance the use and development of open source software government-wide.” In line with the recommendations of the study, he added “one of the main focus points will be the procurement procedures. We are working with open source communities like Code4NL to make sure we make the right adjustments.”