The move to free and open source in public administrations requires political support, a committee from the German Parliament was told last Friday. Peter Hofmann, project leader of the move to free software by the city of Munich, said politicians need to be aware of the benefits of this type of software. He and other experts called for a national policy favouring its use.
Last week Friday a German Bundestag committee heard a group of experts on the topic of interoperability, standards and free software. The experts were invited to help the parliament committee prepare a policy proposal on interoperability and standards. The document will be made public in the coming months.
Hofmann argues that Germany should have a policy to increase the use of free software by public administrations. Citizens should not be forced to buy specific software for interacting with their public administration, says Hofmann. The latter is "one of the fundamental reasons that Munich started using free software."
The switch to free and open source software forced the city's IT department to become interested in standards. It also meant that Munich's administration gets in the cross-hairs of politicians. "(We would otherwise) never have been invited to a Parliament Expert Meeting." Hofmann here agreed with one of the other experts in the meeting, standards expert Professor Hartwig Steusloff, who noted that local governments will have to play an active role here.
Proprietary document headache
The biggest interoperability problem is caused by different document formats, Hofmann testified. He explained that the vast majority of Germany's public administrations continue to exchange documents formatted in proprietary formats. A national guideline recommends the use of the vendor-independent Open Document Format, but this policy fails because ODF is not enforced, Hofmann said.
He told the parliamentarians that Munich's IT staffers regularly contact other public administrations, to solve interoperability problems caused by these proprietary document formats. "We try to get them to work with the ODF, but it is not accepted everywhere." As a result, some civil servants are forced to use a proprietary office suite to continue to communicate with these organisations. Hofmann told the parliament that national laws and regulations force the city administrations to use proprietary software. To submit reports for instance on electronic IDs or on animal diseases, the city is forced to turn to proprietary software. "There are only a few ways out of this trap. It needs to be made a requirement that such systems are offered cross platform, or built as open source."
Hofmann would welcome a national policy that favours the use of ODF by public administrations. Being able to point to the law would help when having to work with administrations that refuse to accept ODF and send such documents back, he told the parliamentarians.
The ubiquitous use of proprietary document formats is causing problems even when communicating with the institutions of the European Union, Hofmann said. "It is very difficult to get consensus on this."
Position paper by Peter Hofmann (in German, pdf)
Bundestag Committee web site on its meeting on Interoperability, Standards and Free Software (in German)
Video from the committee meeting
Status notes from the committee meeting