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Typically, especially in local government, politicians and non-technical personnel set the guidelines about which software should be chosen, and how different offices may use it. IT personnel only have the ability to implement the software chosen for them. This situation can create quite a bit of frustration, especially among those technicians who know the benefits of free software.
In Italy a few months ago, this discussion came up a local mailing list. Robert Resoli wrote that "we are constantly struggling with external software suppliers, all promoting their own custom DBMS solution on their own pet software/hardware platform. Every vendor wants to re-implement half the system, to deploy his own authentication solution (instead of integrating in one single sign on architecture), and their version of 'integration' means to buy all their products."
At the same time, Resoli said that the age of large-scale applications written by government agencies was gone. Instead, he saw the potential of open source in cooperation between agencies to develop and maintain custom applications that suit those agencies, but where the costs of maintaining those applications is too high for a single agency. He concluded that agencies needed a channel to cooperate together on free and open source software (FOSS) projects.
A good-looking ROSPA
The discussion was not entirely pessimistic. On the contrary, it pointed out that such a channel already exists. ROSPA (Rete dell'Open Source nella Pubblica Amministrazione, translated as "the Open Source Network in the Public Administration") is a network of IT specialists and other professionals who advocate wider utilization of FOSS in all Italian public administrations.
ROSPA is not sponsored by any of the agencies that would benefit from its actions, but is a private initiative of individual members from those organizations. The name also shows their sense of humor: in Italian, rospa means "she-toad" or, by extension, a really ugly woman.
ROSPA is a place where all pro-FOSS public employees can compare their experiences and find support at any level, from software installation tips to discussing the current tactics (or lack thereof) used to promote open source in their respective departments. The forum could also be an incubator for projects reusable in different offices, such as customized GNU/Linux distributions, software localization, or writing courseware.
Another objective of ROSPA is to monitor and publish the actual extent of FOSS deployments inside Italian public administrations. The long-term reason for this is to have a positive impact on the political strategies that influence IT choices. The members feel it is important to avoid requesting open source just because it's trendy, or to collect votes, without really understanding what it is all about.
Unfortunately, after a promising start, the traffic on the ROSPA mailing list has slowed down considerably. This is partly due to a lack of time on the part of its participants and partly due to the difficulty in making reserved data or procedures public. Frustration also is also taking a toll. Many FOSS deployments are personal initiatives and die when their architect is transferred, as it routinely happens, to another office. Then, if nobody else had been allowed to assist the original developer, management often decides to redo the system from scratch rather than find someone else to maintain it.
Software or formats? Both (possibly)
Most ROSPA members are well aware, from personal experience, that passion for free software can sometimes contrast with the reality of tight development times and even tighter limits on human resources and IT budgets. Consequently, their motto is "IT systems in public administration must almost always use FOSS product; and always, without exception, non-proprietary formats and protocols."
The "almost" part highlights the need to avoid extremist, possibly counter-productive, positions. Sometimes valid reasons to go with proprietary solutions do exist: equivalent FOSS applications may not exist, or implementing a FOSS solution may not be doable within the assigned budget or deadlines. Another typical case is when software is not directly run by the public office, but by service providers whose contract leaves them free to adopt their favorite applications.
Even in those cases, however, the line remains clearly drawn: no matter what software is chosen, it is mandatory to leave open the possibility for others to use different programs, or develop their own. This means that projects must utilize open formats, even in the absence of open source software. This is also seen as a safeguard for the original developers, as it leaves them free to migrate to better solutions later on without having to code unnecessary filters.
Some interesting projects
Several ROSPA members are involved in the Consortium for Open Source in the Public Administration (COSPA) Project, an European large-scale study of governmental migrations to open source. Others participated in developing the city portal of Riva del Garda.
That Web site includes an interesting feature that could be adapted by many Webmasters: a system, based on the OpenOffice.org Python-UNO bridge, which allows city employees to automatically generate OpenDocument, Microsoft Word, and PDF files through a simple Web interface. According to its developers, the system can be integrated in other applications without excessive difficulties.
Anther worthwhile project which involves ROSPA members is the FLOSS Competence Center of the Province of Rome. If the province of the country capital utilizes FOSS, it provides an example for smaller provinces.
What about international cooperation?
In most cases, direct cooperation and sharing of code in this space across national boundaries is not really possible, since applications often need to follow regulations which differ from country to country. In spite of this, when I asked ROSPA participants, "Would you like some kind of international support?" I received two types of answers. The first may be summarized as "maybe not, with the exception of lobbying together for better IT regulations in the European Union."
The second answer was that it would be a Good Thing to create some sort of international ROSPA -- something for all the pro-FOSS IT technicians in the public administrations of all Europe and beyond. It is time to share all the isolated efforts and build on that, to avoid risky choices and uneven experiences like the one in Munich.
I'm happy to forward this call for action. Free Software developers already share a lot of effort throughout the world to create software. It is only natural to extend the same model among those who actually deploy those same products.
Marco Fioretti is the author of The Family Guide to Digital Freedom and contributes regularly to Linux.com and other IT magazines.