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A sharing attitude: Programverket in Sweden

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Aimed at public administrations at the local and regional level, Programverket in Sweden provides a platform for sharing specialised software on a FLOSS basis. Though it is still under development, its mission goes much further: It wants to be an outlet for a new level of cooperation between public bodies.

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A difficult terrain

Programverket is operating in a difficult environment. "Regarding open source, we in Sweden not in the front line", says Östling. The main person behind Programverket, he is an IT strategist with SALAR, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. Every municipality, county and region in Sweden is organised in SALAR. "We\'re very much a Microsoft country", he says. The public sector\'s IT structure is heavily dependent on proprietary solutions from established vendors. "We have a duopoly in the area where local administrations usually work. There are two or maybe three vendors." 

 

Sweden\'s flag and location in Europe
Sweden\'s flag and location in Europe

 

Very little software is developed in-house by public bodies. With slightly more than nine million inhabitants to a surface of almost 450.000 square kilometers, Sweden\'s population density (apart from its urban centres) is rather low. The average local authority has about 15.000 inhabitants, and an ICT department of five people, says Östling. Save for a few very large administrations, "they don\'t develop software. They really depend on the vendors to provide them with the software they need", he explains. Most of the development happens through external companies and consultants.

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Three questions to answer

Östling says that the idea of setting up a sharing platform came up "some years ago, when I met some people from Stockholm\'s county council". They had a fair number of programs that they wanted to share with other public administrations in Sweden. The software was developed both in-house and by consultants.

At first they were thinking about using some type of "friends" licence, giving the software to some public bodies only. But the top management of the county council wanted to make sure that the council wouldn\'t be held responsible in case of problems with the software, or would have to provide support for the applications. "They didn\'t want to act as a vendor", Östling recalls. "They said, \'we\'re not a software house, we\'re a public body and we have our core responsibilities to attend to\'".

The solution was to use one of the established FLOSS licences. But the next question to arise was where to put the software so that other public bodies could find it. "It couldn\'t be put on the county council\'s website, because nobody goes to that site to get software", says Östling. "You go there looking for healthcare information or news about the local government, but you don\'t go looking for software."

Mats Östling, SALAR\'s IT strategist © Mats Östling 2007. Used by permission.
Mats Östling, SALAR\'s IT strategist © Mats Östling 2007. Used by permission.

The third problem was that "every ICT manager we spoke to told us that while it\'s okay to use a program developed by another public body, they needed a vendor, someone to implement and maintain the software."

Programverket is the answer to these three questions. "We\'re using open source licences; it\'s a place to make software available on the Internet; and you need to have vendors involved in the process. That\'s why we established programverket.org." The goal is to encourage public bodies to share the software they have developed.

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Run by SALAR

Programverket.org is run by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR), who took the initiative together with the city council of Stockholm. "Verket" has quite an official ring in Sweden: The term is associated with agencies of the national government. "It\'s the \'software department\' for the public sector, really", Östling explains.

At the moment, the programverket.org website offers information on FLOSS and software sharing, and an archive of software uploaded by public bodies. Programverket focuses on software produced or paid for by public organisations themselves. "There already are lots of places on the Internet where you can find readily packaged software like GNU/Linux distributions or OpenOffice", says Östling. The goal is that the software on the site should be suitable and adapted to the purposes of the public sector.

Programverket has been running since early 2006, but Östling says that "we\'re still in a start-up phase. It\'s very much an exploration of the open source phenomenon. How can we use open source in the public administration in Sweden?" The initiative attracts a lot of interest, both from public bodies and from software vendors. "They ask me \'how can we adopt a more open business model?\' And a lot of public organisations are asking how they can adapt the way they are working."

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Sharing more than software

"We\'re thinking, \'how can we take advantage of the concept of open source?\'", says Östling. The project is working to find methods and develop best practices for sharing knowledge between public bodies. "There are a lot of things we can share in the public sector, and we need to do that", he emphasises. "It\'s really not effective to have every public body do everything by itself. We need to develop a sharing attitude."

Work is under way to set up a functionality for sharing process maps between public administrations. Public bodies map their processes in order to visualise and improve their workflow. Sharing the resulting maps would let others learn from the way that each body works and give feedback. "We want to get public bodies to share anything that\'s not physical. You can\'t share your buildings, but you can share your knowledge, you experience, your process maps", says Östling. "We want to promote a spirit of sharing."

These maps could then be linked to software that is appropriate to each administration\'s processes. This should be useful to describe what a piece of software is good at: A vendor can use the maps to to offer a piece of software to a client, and tell him how it fits into his workflow. This should make it easier for the two to understand each other.

Some Swedish municipalities are already sharing their experiences in eGovernment in an organisation called Sambruk, meaning "common use". This could theoretically be linked to Programverket in the future.

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Cooperative development in practice: Sundsvall\'s "parent meeting" software

In one of the first cases of consciously undertaken FLOSS development by a public body in Sweden, the municipal administration of Sundsvall worked together with the local university and a local software company to produce a "parent meeting" application. The key person behind the effort was Daniel Antonsson, the municipality\'s IT manager.

This program is deployed in schools to provide information about pupils to their parents and improve the communication between parents and teachers. All of the three organisations taking part in the application\'s development agreed that it would be distributed under the GPL, as this was the easiest way to share the development effort between the partners. The municipality\'s share of the development was paid out of the regular IT budget, though the university\'s students put in most of the manpower.

Sundsvall\'s parent meeting portal
Sundsvall\'s parent meeting portal

In sharing the development, each project partner picked the tasks that he found interesting. No traditional project budget was set up. "One of the reasons why we were doing this was just to try to develop a real application as open source, and see what we can learn from it", says Antonsson. The experience was very positive, and Sundsvall, along with a larger group of partners, is currently building another application for pensioners, which reuses some of the code of the parent meeting program.

Upon completion, the software was published during a SALAR conference in Sundsvall. "We burnt it onto a CD, and Sundsvall\'s mayor gave it to the head of SALAR as a gift to all other municipalities in Sweden", he recalls. It was then uploaded onto the programverket.org site, as one of the first applications there.

The parent meeting application has been taken up especially by schools outside the state system ("free schools"). Antonsson says that the idea -- though not the code -- has been copied by proprietary vendors for their offerings to schools. It is written in English and set up in a way that makes it easy to produce versions in local languages: "There\'s only one file that you have to translate." The software can be obtained through its website.

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Business involvement

 

Programverket doesn\'t allow for the direct participation of businesses. Yet Östling insists that they still form a key element of the project\'s strategy. Any public body that wants to share software on the programverket site needs to name at least one enterprise that will provide support for the program. Usually, this is the same company that developed the software in the first place. The reason for this policy is that it is outside the mission of public bodies to provide software support; yet most administrators will not deploy a complex program if there is no support available.

Östling has witnessed two types of business reactions to Programverket. Companies that mainly work as consultants and service providers generally are happy with the project. If a customer from the public sector releases the software on the programverket.org site, they get greater visibility for their products. When software is reused which they have developed, they gain another potential client. Unsurprisingly, established vendors of proprietary software are less thrilled. But, Östling says, "they are asking a lot of questions about how to adapt their business models" to the trend towards sharing.

According to him, there hasn\'t been any opposition to Programverket, especially since its main proposition is hard to argue with: "Everyone agrees on the sharing concept, saying that what has been developed with taxpayers\' money should be shared with everyone."

Advantages for municipalities: the long-term view

 

Antonsson says that Sundsvall\'s advantage from participating in programverket has mainly been publicity: "Many people know that Sundsvall is working with open source, and they\'re looking at what we are doing. But in the future, when programverket develops further, we hope to have more hard advantages."

Daniel Antonsson, Sundsvall\'s IT manager, © Daniel Antonsson 2007. Used by permission.
Daniel Antonsson, Sundsvall\'s IT manager, © Daniel Antonsson 2007. Used by permission.

From his experience as a municipal IT manager, Antonsson sees a general advantage for FLOSS. Sweden\'s procurement regime demands that public bodies evaluate their software\'s cost effectiveness every five years, and switch to another solution if necessary. This is a considerable effort. "But if you use an open source codebase, you can use the same solution for ten, fifteen or twenty years, and pay for further developments of the code instead. That\'s a very interesting prospect." Several municipalities could share the development costs. Antonsson sees Programverket as a potential hub for this sort of developement.

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Working on a slim budget

Programverket is a project of SALAR, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. The budget is about 25.000 EUR per year. This might be slightly expanded in the future. Currently, the project is seen as an exploration effort, says Östling: "How can we take advantage of the open source concept, how can we create a sharing attitude in the public sector, what are the best practices?" Given the budget, programverket doesn\'t have any employees of its own. Östling and a colleague at SALAR are doing the greatest part of the work.

Technology: Keeping it simple

Programverket encourages public bodies to upload their software in a shape that makes it easy for other public bodies to re-use it. The site offers a platform for uploading and downloading software. While anyone can download the software, only registered users can upload applications. Facilities for collaborative software development are not a priority. In most municipalities, the actual development happens within businesses, rather than at public bodies.

Currently, ten or twelve bodies have uploaded software to programverket.org, says Östling. Recently, the first instance of shared development occurred: A public body took a contact register that had been uploaded to the site, and added a module to handle integration and removal of employees on the Intranet. This addition is now also being used at the administration that originally uploaded the register. Another organisation used the same contact register and added a module for organising conferences. "It\'s a small step, but it\'s very interesting. Open source adoption is slow, but I think we\'re having some success", says Östling.

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Legal aspects: licences, liability and copyright

All software that is published on programverket.org needs to be licensed under a FLOSS licence. It is up to the uploading public body to decide which one it wants to use. In case the application in question is based on an existing FLOSS program, that program\'s license will be the one that has to be used. Programverket does not impose any rules here. 

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"But where will I get support?"

According to Östling, the most frequent question that public bodies\' ICT managers ask about FLOSS is "will I get the same support I\'m used to for proprietary software?"

With a chuckle, he recalls an IDABC case study on FLOSS procurement in the Borough of Camden, UK. Here, the lawyers were initially worried about a lack of warranties for FLOSS. But upon examining the licence agreements for proprietary software, they discovered that almost all warranties there were connected to a service contract, which carried additional costs. The same was true for the FLOSS application they were looking at.

This is essentially the case with all the software shared on programverket. "The only way to get guarantees is to strike a deal with the vendor", says Östling. This is true for FLOSS as well as for proprietary software.

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Programverket\'s website

Programverket\'s website

Dealing with a rigid national procurement structure

Public procurement in Sweden is organised at the national level. There is a national procurement agency which provides framework contracts for all public sector bodies to use. With a view to FLOSS, the problem is that due to its size, this agency only deals with big vendors; on the other hand, most businesses working with FLOSS are small. They do not fit into the procurement agency\'s framework, and are usually locked out as a result, Östling points out. "Everyone is talking about SMEs, but you can\'t really say that a lot of work is going on in their favour."

He would like to see the national procurement framework complemented by regional frameworks, which would make it easier to compete for small businesses working with FLOSS. This way, they could offer services such as consulting and customisation of software in their regions, without needing to be established at the national level. Another problem are the entrenched procurement practices. Procurement managers in public bodies often have long-standing business relations with vendors, and structure their calls for tender in ways that make it easy for these businesses to answer to. SMEs working with FLOSS often find it hard to get a foot in the door. For them, "it\'s the practices that are really discriminating", says Östling.

Procurement for FLOSS also means that public sector managers have to ask different questions when talking to vendors. Rather than negotiating per-seat licences, they now have to calculate the total cost of ownership for the software. This is a learning process for many of them.

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Future plans: the national and international level

 

Programverket is currently developing a functionality that lets administrations find other public bodies with the same needs and interests in software development. This will make it possible for them to share the cost of development. "We\'re moving towards more of a networking style of work", says Östling.

At the moment, Programverket is an effort aimed at local and regional authorities. Östling says that he is working to involve national bodies as well, but this is turning out to be difficult: "At the moment, ICT is not a political question at all. We really don\'t have any national ICT strategies, except in specific areas. We don\'t have a national strategy regarding open source or open standards." As a sign of progress, a report by the national government recommends that if public bodies develop software, they should upload it to programverket.org.

Website of the Swedish Association of Local authorities and Regions (SALAR)
Website of the Swedish Association of Local authorities and Regions (SALAR)

Public bodies at the Swedish national level are quite large, and account for most of the in-house software development in the public sector. Getting them to cooperate with programverket.org would greatly increase the amount of software that is available on the site, says Östling.

As a next step in software sharing, Östling envisions closer ties between the Nordic countries. This should go beyond translation; one option would be to link the databases of national efforts (such as Programverket.org or Softwarebøsen in Denmark) so that programs uploaded to one platform will show up in searches on the other. This would especially make sense for administrations at the national level, as Antonsson points out with the tax agency as an example: There is only one tax agency in each Nordic country, so the only way to efficiently reuse their specialised applications is by adapting them for the tax agencies in the other nations.

Though the Nordic national sharing platforms have slightly different approaches, they are cooperating with each other. As an example Östling points out that currently at least two of the applications available for download on programverket.org have been developed in Finland.

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Challenges: knowledge and popularity

 

Östling says that one of the major problem for public sector ICT managers is finding support and quality assurance for FLOSS applications. "Most of the ICT managers think that there aren\'t any companies like that around. But there are. They are not well-known or large, but they are all around Sweden, working in a networked fashion. So we need to make it easier for ICT managers in public organisations to find companies they can contact, and to find other public administrations who are moving in the same direction", he says.

While established vendors of proprietary software are sceptical towards Programverket because it might require them to adapt their business model, some other people believe that the public sector shouldn\'t engage in software development at all. "But everyone agrees with the sharing concept", says Östling; once the taxpayer\'s money has paid for developing software (or, for that matter, other kinds of reusable knowledge), it should be made available to all.

One problem is that the rate at which new software appears on the site is rather low. Antonsson argues that there need to be more frequent uploads of software and information to Programverket. "The question is, what\'s in it for me? And if there\'s nothing in it for me, I don\'t go to the website."

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The road ahead: Building trusted networks

 

At present, Antonsson says, most public sector development in Sweden probably occurs in niche areas where there are no proprietary solutions on the market. But he thinks that in future, municipalities could get together to pay for new features to be added to an existing FLOSS application.

According to Östling, Programverket has greatly helped in making FLOSS a real option for the public sector. The fact that a high-level organisation like SALAR is behind the project "shows everyone that it\'s ok to use and develop open source", says Östling. Antonsson agrees: "This is probably Programverket\'s biggest effect so far."

The government has published a draft report on FLOSS and open standards, looking for comments. The report recommends that software which is developed with public money should be shared. It stays rather vague on open standards; "they\'re not a big topic here", says Östling. Software standards in effect determine whether an organisation is locked into a certain product and tied to its vendor, or whether it is free to choose from from competing programs, be they FLOSS or proprietary. Programverket is not active in this area yet.

Programverket has attracted a lot of attention, says Östling, who sees a growing interest in sharing software. The project lets public bodies feel that it is legitimate to talk about FLOSS and evaluate it in procurement processes. "Just the fact that programverket is there has had a major impact on the attitude towards open source in the public sector", says Östling. Antonsson agrees: "Some years ago, you could count on one hand the people in Swedish public administrations who were interested in open source. Today, there are many more. When I meet CIOs from other municipalities, Programverket and open source are hot topics." To promote Programverket to the public sector, Östling spends a lot of time at seminars and conferences.

Östling argues that most public bodies are involved in software development in some way, though most of them do not realise it. "If you put a lot of work into adapting a [proprietary] system for managing human resources to suit your organisation\'s needs, then why not go all the way and develop the software yourself? This way, you can adapt and change the software as you want, and share it with others."

Antonsson believes that it would not be hard for other municipalities to develop FLOSS applications the same way as Sundsvall. "I can\'t see what\'s special about Sundsvall", he says. "If we can do it, others should be able to do it too."

He thinks that Programverket\'s priority should be to build networks between key persons. "What I\'ve learned in these years in open source development is that development is closely tied to networks of trust between people. Trust is the key factor, and the basis for open source."

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Links

This case study is brought to you by the Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR), a project of the European Commission\'s IDABC project.
Author: Karsten Gerloff, UNU-MERIT
This study is based on interviews with Mats Östling, SALAR\'s IT strategist, and Daniel Antonsson, the IT manager of the municipality of Sundsvall.

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Copyright
© European Communities 2007
Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.
Disclaimer
The opinions expressed in this study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.



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