European public services must follow Iceland's open-source lead

Originally posted: http://www.publicserviceeurope.com/article/1761/european-public-services-must-follow-icelands-open-source-lead

To many in the private sector, the idea of super-size contracts that are expensive to run and almost impossible to break free from seems ludicrous

The global economic crisis has triggered a series of unprecedented social and political upheavals that have left many governments on the brink of bankruptcy. The high volume of debts have engulfed even the most well-managed economies, triggering a chain reaction in which cuts to public sector spending have become inevitable.

A high profile casualty of these consequences was Iceland, where a collapse in the banking system led to long-running financial and diplomatic crisis. Significantly, it has recently been announced that Iceland is set to swap its high-cost public sector proprietary software solutions in favour of open source alternatives. Strategists behind the move cited cost savings as a prime reason for the shift in solution and, to their credit, this is a perfectly logical reason for engaging with open source alternatives.

What perhaps is more interesting is the one-year period with which the Icelandic government is planning to implement this policy. Iceland recognised and opened the doors to open source in 2007 with the creation of policy designed to create a level-playing field. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the soaring debt of the Icelandic government, the recent move increases the pressure for departments to speed up their rates of adoption.

While some may argue that this strategy is the equivalent to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, it also sends a clear signal to other European countries about how they should reconsider their approach to mega-vendor culture. With many countries still desperately trying to avoid a credit-rating downgrade, it makes sense for the Icelandic example to be replicated with immediate affect.

To many in the private sector, the idea of super-size contracts that are not only expensive to run but are almost impossible to break free from without huge financial penalties seems ludicrous. Yet the simple fact remains that many nervous information technology decision-makers in the long preferred to sign off multi-million euro deals to supposedly competent vendors - rather than take a risk on challenger offerings. Undoubtedly, the open-source community has been a key victim of this out-dated culture.

It is not simply an issue of costs. Large vendors often lack the dynamism and innovation to deliver the kind of modernisation, which public services so desperately need. When you combine these two key selling points, it simply beggars belief that innovative and free technology alternatives have been shunned in favour of expensive and less effective offerings. Look around Europe and there are a number examples of open-source alternatives beginning to be put to good use.

France and The Netherlands have initatives in place to support open source adoption. Meanwhile, almost all Spanish public administrations use open source to some degree - with half involved in developing applications built in open-source environments. Switzerland has also been an early adopter of open-source software. But these examples are completely overshadowed by the United States, which uses open source without hesitation.

In a continent wavering on the edge of a second recession, it makes sense for all European countries to look to the early adopters - such as Iceland and Spain - as successful models to replicate within their own governments. Open source solutions should be implemented as part of every country's long term public sector IT strategy to make much-needed savings from the start. Iceland is the latest in a line of governments showing Europe that if you are looking to cut IT costs, then an open-source model is the only serious solution available. It is time for the late arrivals to recognise this fact so that immediate and much needed savings can be made as soon as possible.

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