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Help Writing an Open Standards Policy? 52

Cornwallis writes "I'm trying to save money for a local government agency I work for by writing a policy statement to support the idea of adopting open data standards and/or Open Source software in order to contain IT expenses (by reducing licensing costs). I am thinking something along the lines of supporting open standards by not locking in to long term software contracts so that departments could be freed to adopt an alternative OS and/or desktop suite if this would work for the individual department. The idea is to unlock the stranglehold that proprietary software may have on the department IT budget. Have any of you written policy statements along these lines, and would you be willing to share? I'm not saying this would be for everybody, nor replace everything, just be an option to help my beleaguered agency in rough times."
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Help Writing an Open Standards Policy?

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  • Already available (Score:5, Insightful)

    by alain94040 ( 785132 ) * on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:15PM (#26759295) Homepage

    You can use any of a number of already existing policies. For instance, the Open Standards Policy [] of Massachusetts is very nicely worded:

    Commonwealth's Position

    • Effective and efficient government service delivery requires system integration and data sharing.
    • Technology investments must be made based on total cost of ownership and best value to the Commonwealth. Component-based software development based on open standards allows for a more cost-effective "build once, use many times" approach.
    • Open systems and specifications are often less costly to acquire, develop and maintain and do not result in vendor lock-in.

    Interested in exploring a possible business idea with friends? []

    • Technology investments must be made based on total cost of ownership ...

      Thus the advertising and planted article campaigns claiming lower total cost of ownership than Linux.

      Open [...] specifications are often less costly to acquire, develop and maintain and do not result in vendor lock-in.

      Thus the move to obtain standards-organization approval for a "standard" document format based on their word processor - which was unclear enough to make it impossible to write code to handle the format based solely on the

    • "and do not result in vendor lock-in"

      That should be emphasized much more. When you're buying properiatary software you're basically giving away control to the company you're buying from. It's like buying a car that you have no right to do any kind of service on, and you don't even know if the GPS is connected to a deadswitch that will turn the engine off if you drive in a state where you don't have a license. Generally if you just want a little more out of your properiatary application, it will cost you a

  • Some resources ... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:22PM (#26759377)

    For some good ideas to start with, see [] and then head over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts links. You can glean a lot of the policy formulation ides from there. They built a requirement to use open document format (not necessarily open source). [] is another good resource to start with.

  • Seems like this would be a good community project? Have a GPL'd proposal set up for others to use and customize as needed?

  • Call me (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) * <> on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:34PM (#26759509) Homepage Journal
    I've done this for a number of national and local governments. If you'd like to write me directly or call my office at 510-984-1055, I can help.


    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Vectronic ( 1221470 )

      867-5309 Call Me.

      (Sorry, but I had to.)

    • by Tiger4 ( 840741 )

      Do you have the Business Case to go with it?

      Most small to medium sized government agencies (water districts, most school districts, most cities, etc) are going to be run (governed) by small to medium sized businessmen on a part time basis (i.e. used cars by day, city council by night). They may not be tech savvy on computing technology, but they know about saving money. You can almost be certain of that unless you happen to be living near Santa Clara or Seattle.

      They will be looking for the simplest and mo

      • I've been through this before. Often, it's best to start with new projects, rather than existing desktops, so that you aren't replacing anything, you're starting new people up on brand-new systems and software. Switching their entire IT structure as your first project doesn't generally work out well.
        • by Tiger4 ( 840741 )

          That is essentially what I suspected.

          I've been through it too. Not OSS, but pretty much any tech upgrade or refresh has this issue. The owners don't like the idea of vendor lock-in in principle, but they LOVE the idea of a single point of contact fix-it or else solution. They want it cheap and simple, and flexible and competitive, but also easy to understand.

          As long as your vendor is reasonable and wants to work with you, this can work out fine. Which is generally true in most small towns. But if a cer

  • by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:37PM (#26759533)

    ...from the Department of Information Resources (SRRPUB09 []). A little-known document outside of OSS circles, unfortunately.

  • 2 things (Score:4, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:40PM (#26759579) Homepage Journal

    A) Having an open standards means more citizens can contact them. If a poor woman with 4 children can't communicate with a city bureau and has her water turned off(for example) it would be a PR nightmare for the elected officials.

    B) 2 - Slower upgrade cycle for the computers. I can't think of anything a government office does that can't be done using office 97. Yet they keep buying new computers and new software. I am of course talking about general government business. Clearly the people doing crypto, and designing nuclear planets, etc would benefit from having a faster computer.

    Most accountants, management, help desk not so much.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by VampireByte ( 447578 )

      Clearly the people doing crypto, and designing nuclear planets, etc would benefit from having a faster computer.

      I think designing a nuclear planet would take more than a fast computer.

  • by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:42PM (#26759589) Journal

    Assuming you can make the case for doing so -- and it looks as though you have plenty of help there -- it might be worth clarifying what an "open standard" means.

    For something to be considered an open standard, it must meet the following criteria:

      - A comprehensive formal specification. (This should be obvious.)
      - At least one reference implementation for which source code is freely available. (It doesn't have to be freely re-usable, so long as it's there.) OR, many very different implementations which can communicate. (There probably isn't a reference HTML/CSS renderer, but there are enough implementations that one isn't needed.)
      - No legal issues for either of the above points, or the use of the specification. (Obvious example: No patents allowed, unless they've been turned over to the public domain.)

    It should also meet the following criteria:

      - A well-written, accessible, comprehensive formal specification. Or, both a formal specification and easier-to-read documentation.
      - Both an official open source reference implementation, and several competing implementations.
      - Corporate backing -- especially a corporate stake in it. This implies that said corporation has had their lawyers verify that there are no legal issues.
      - Simple, clean design, especially relative to other standards providing the same thing. For example, if the choice is between SOAP and XML-RPC, you probably want XML-RPC -- and you might prefer REST to either of those, especially if your data is not XML.
      - Popularity. This really matters the least, so long as the others are met -- it's more important that I can hold the ideals of REST in my head, and implement it from scratch in a few lines of code, than that there are probably more SOAP and XML-RPC implementations. But it shouldn't be ignored -- it would be insane to try to replace HTML with something completely different, for instance. (Both HTML5 and XHTML are incremental improvements, and are sane. Trying to replace HTML with a YAML-based format would not be sane.)

    I'm not suggesting that policy has to follow these to the letter, but that's what I personally consider an open standard, and especially, what I consider to be a good standard. In the past, when I've called Microsoft's "Open" XML various names -- "Neither open nor standard" comes to mind -- these are the guidelines I was using.

  • by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:46PM (#26759623)

    You might also want to contact your local Linux/FOSS User's Group for some ideas. For example, our user group ( [] ) contains people from all walks of life, including people who work for government agencies. You might get a lot of positive feedback and support. Consider it "networking", just not in the computer sense.

    Don't be discouraged- there are, unfortunately, a lot of factors that will work against you or at least for the status-quo. But everyone can make a difference. Just do the best you can, keep an open mind, respect others' points of view, and learn from the experience. It can even be enjoyable along the way.

  • The whole point of a long term contract is that they 'lower' the price in exchange for a steady revenue stream.
    It doesn't matter if you're contracting support from MS, IBM, Red Hat, or with Sun for OpenOffice.

    • by Tiger4 ( 840741 )

      Cost does matter. Both in real money spent, and in the time of training and ease of use. Don't make them regret any kind of transition. If they have any sense at all, it will be a phased transition, and they will be ready to back out at teh first bump in the road.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's all about using the right tool for the job. Sometimes proprietary tools are either:

    a) the only tool for the job
    b) the best tool for the job

    It can be helpful to lock yourself in a contract to secure better pricing and support on proprietary software.

    We all know and love the benefits of Free Software, but be careful that you don't shoe-horn people into using specific free, open, yet inferior software. If the traffic signaling hardware can be managed by a superior windows application or a half-supported L

  • Other way round (Score:4, Insightful)

    by frisket ( 149522 ) <> on Friday February 06, 2009 @07:58PM (#26759739) Homepage

    > support the idea of adopting open data standards and/or Open Source software in order to contain IT expenses (by reducing licensing costs).

    I think it might get a better reception if you invert the argument: don't present adopting open source/standards as the target; present saving money as the target, and open source/standards as the method.

    > ...supporting open standards by not locking in to long term software contracts [and] to unlock the stranglehold that proprietary software may have on the department IT budget.

    Same here. Make the objective to unlock the stranglehold and free up using open source/standards.

    In half a life in state-funded IT managment, I have found that most public-service IT managers and local government administrators are woefully undereducated in software selection, and either a) have never heard of FOSS, b) think it has something to do with downloading viruses from bulletin-boards, or c) simply aren't bothered one way or the other unless it saves money or makes life easier. A very, very small number are on kickbacks from suppliers, but you shouldn't work for them.

    There are a gazillion other benefits, but try to present them as serendipitous by-products of using open source/standards, not as ends in themselves. The immediate end is saving money (or its equivalent).

    However, before you do so, make sure you aren't making a noose for your own neck. Sometimes a department or agency which saves real money finds that this is treated as evidence that they don't need any more resources ever again. It's sometimes better to use the move to FOSS as a way to free up money to do things you said were impossible unless you got extra funding.

    Good luck, and please let us know how you got on. Post the document if that is permitted.

  • What a co-incidence, the Canadian government is apparently asking very similar questions [].

  • by julian67 ( 1022593 ) on Friday February 06, 2009 @08:07PM (#26759809)

    I'm extremely impressed that Bruce Perens responds with his phone number and an offer of advice, which I assume we all appreciate is based on a wealth of practical experience and success, and even more impressed that just a few posts later someone suggests that what you really need is a lawyer. What a strange world. Perhaps the anon coward who suggested a lawyer is, in fact, a lawyer?

    If you ignore Bruce Perens and opt instead to call a lawyer you should get fired ;-)

    btw I'm writing this from my nuclear planet. I made it last week. I have a very fast computer. The planet is OK but a bit hot (I didn't have time to put the air-con in yet).

    • by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) * <> on Friday February 06, 2009 @08:51PM (#26760221) Homepage Journal
      I spend tons of time working with my customers' lawyers. I know better than to do licensing, etc., without legal advice.
      • The OP isn't doing licensing, he's researching for the purpose of drafting a policy document on procurement/standards with a view to reducing licensing *costs*. If he works for a branch of government they will inevitably have their own legal dept. who vet all such documents as a matter of course. Being fellow employees, even colleagues, they may even do it without billing him ;-) I'm sure Mr Perens' extensive experience in this area goes beyond blowing out air on /. and does actually include occasional co

        • by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) * <> on Friday February 06, 2009 @09:17PM (#26760441) Homepage Journal

          Policy is sort of a dual problem. Attorneys get involved on several levels. They want to make sure no laws are being broken in the policy, that there isn't a specific vendor proference (if we're lucky - some districts have no problem sending everything to a few preferred vendors) and that it's not going to be overly burdensome for vendors doing business with the locality.

          But politicians also get involved, and that's where the big problems will be. The really important thing I bring to the table is experience in how other similar efforts have failed, and how to get around the problems that killed them.


          • by MrZaius ( 321037 )

            The really important thing I bring to the table is experience in how other similar efforts have failed, and how to get around the problems that killed them.

            This obviously isn't an unheard of problem, and is likely to become an even bigger issue with the noise that the American federal government is making about open standards and open source under the new administration. Any chance you'll be willing to just help everyone out at once and crank out another book? The above reads like a tagline on one I'd buy i

  • OK, I'll bite (Score:5, Informative)

    by cdrguru ( 88047 ) on Friday February 06, 2009 @08:29PM (#26760007) Homepage

    So you want to encourage open-source adoption? OK, a laudable goal. The two things that you are going to have to deal with from an IT perspective are support and version control.

    Who, exactly do departments deal with for support? Will the IT department be the front-line resource and then farm things out as needed? Or are individual departments going to be going it alone? More to the point, is the experience if departments such that they would prefer to "go it alone" today? If the departments are your customers and they have been treatd well, then the probably will expect the IT department to be providing first-line support for them - as well you should.

    One big reason for providing first-line support is version control. While some open-source packages have well-defined versions (Ubuntu, for example), many others do not. There are patches here and there and different versions being distributed from different web sites. If you are assuming interoperability of software being used by different departments it is going to be up to someone to ensure that this is actually possible. Having departments select their own versions and installing them will not insure this at all. If it then falls upon you to sort this out at some later date, you are going to wish dearly that you had been proactive about it. Yes, this may mean being ratuer draconian about individual users downloading whatever they want, installing it and counting on IT to pick up the pieces.

    I have seen this happen, even within a community of software developers.

    There is a substantial manpower requirement for this, and it needs to be in IT, not in individual departments. You are proposing something that will save money, but some of that immediate savings in software licenses needs to be shifted over to an IT function for support and version control. Ignoring this is not a viable option because you will end up with everyone being unhappy and upper management putting an end to this "experiment". No matter how happy they were with the initial savings.

    Sure, overall costs can be lower. But some of that apparent savings needs to be funneled back into keeping things sane and managed. Things like Office Update and Microsoft Office web sites for templates, add-ons and tools do this for Office users and it all just works. You will be replacing this with IT resources at a great savings but you can't ignore things like updates, version control and support issues.

  • Based on white papers I've written in the past, I'd suggest the following:

    • Any standard should be recognized by at least two vendors, of whom at least one should be considered mainstream and at least one should be developed by a non-trivial (less than 3 member) group.
    • Any standard should not be be unduly burdened by dependencies on system architecture, OS or other facet of technology that is likely to change in the lifetime of data produced under that standard.
    • Any standard should be documented to someting tha
  • The Government of Canada, has some position papers and related material on Open Source Software available from Treasury Board of Canada, here [], also there the Getting Open Source Logic INto Government / aka GOSLING / OISILLON [] (Options Innovatrices et Synergiques pour l'Introduction du Logiciel Libre dans les Organisations Nationales) which advocates adoption within government.

    A somewhat related project (web2.0) is the internal GCpedia (Government of Canada own internal wikipedia), here [] is the Wikipedia entr

  • New York published a report studying issues surrounding electronic records.

    It mostly centers around document formats, but an appendix in Part 2 recommends that the state integrate the evaluation of open source software into procurement policy. You might find it interesting.

    You can find it here: []

  • I'd really like to see a policy that not only consumes open source projects but at the same time makes sure that all development done for any government is committed as open source (because it belongs to the people that paid for it in the first place, the tax payer). This would in my opinion drastically reduce the cost for local governments because it would allow applications written for one city/state/country to be used and adopted by other entities too. After all, a budgeting software for one county could
    • I'd [...] like to see a policy that [also directs] development done for any government [to be released] as open source [...]. This would [...] drastically reduce the cost for local governments because it would allow applications written for one city/state/country to be used and adopted [and adapted, rather than rewritten from scratch] by other[s].

      YES! Great idea.

      Administrators of government departments which are strapped for cash like to spend what they do have on their people rather than vendors. This:

  • by Anonymous Coward

    See the writings of people like Matt Asay and others about upcoming lock-in strategies. []

    MS is ready to yield on formats if they can lock up the data in other ways.

    The key is freeing the data and keeping it free. Open formats and standards and software help, no question. But an equally important preventitive is to make certain you have iron clad contract language enabling you to move your data from that vendor's system to a competing system, at nomina

  • Are you doing this because you want to save the district money and ensure format freedom, or are you trying to push open source software? The two may in cases be the same, but think of your motive. If OSS comes first, you are doing wrong by the district.
  • Things to consider: Licensing costs are a trivial piece of the pie. Supporting the products is the big cost sink. And frankly, that's going to be relatively flat no matter what you pick. Retraining people to use new software is going to eat up a big chunk of whatever savings you're generating. Probably a couple of years. Budget it in, or someone will notice it and use it spike your project. Preempt them or lose. And the big one - loss of office automation. This is the real Microsoft Office lock in
  • A mistake any organization can make is throwing out options. License Fees for software are often the least of people budget worries. and sometimes you end up with a better value with a close source and closed spec application over its expected Life time.

  • I've written a paper on this issue (downloadable from [] - but in Hungarian), where I found the most compelling approach is to:
    • identify the affected stakeholders, such as:
      • the society at large
      • the single citizen
      • the government agency
      • the IT solution provider
      • the IT sector at large
    • analyze the different procurement models & analyze the pros / cons in view of the stakeholders. for example, I analyzed the following models:
      • totally closed procumerment (closed source,
  • the Universal Interoperability Council. []

    The Universally Accessible and Interoperable Specification is being developed as an alternative to existing definitions of an "open standard" primarily because existing definitions: [i] clash with international law governing government procurement and standards development such as the Agrement on Government Procurement and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade; [ii] do not adequately address the quality of standards; and [iii] have almost uniformly been b

  • This might be helpful, Becta's Technical Specification, Institutional Infrastructure. []

    In particular, pages 38 and following specify what formats Office applications must be able to save their documents in. This is the real problem.

  • We have Sharepoint at my org, and a department needed to be able to edit 1(one) field in an excel worksheet to perform calculations on other fields and print the full results (using Excel on workstation without paying office licenses on many workstations). They called me for a solution and of course needed one in 3 days. These calcs (in the spreadsheet) had already been through a stringent review process and since we had Excel services for MOSS 2007, we thought all is well. Turns out, excel services leve
    • First guess - Calc was not on the approved software list. Many organizations that have centralized IT departments have a standardized software list. If your program isn't on the list, you can't install it - period. Actually, in most places, it's if the specific version of the program isn't on the list, it's a non-starter. It's quite annoying, but I do understand the reason behind it. And it's usually not all that hard to get something added, but it takes paperwork and time. Second guess would be fears
  • Tons of economic research on ((dis)advantages) of use of FLOSS and Open Standards in government has been conducted by UNU MERIT [] in their FLOSS: Policy Support [] programme.

    Besides that, depending on your audience and/or the specific IT portfolio you're addressing, cost might not be a strong argument, and it's certainly not the only one. Perhaps you also need to identify more intrinsic benefits such as government transparancy and "digital durability".

  • Prepare a thundering speech addressing all your co-workers and stream it to their desks using Silverlight.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense's "Open Systems Joint Task Force" has some material [].

    Defining "open standards" is critical. Vendors with an open mouth will say they have an open standard. I'd go look at [] for a more useful definition and justification.

    European Interoperability Framework for pan-European eGovernment Services [] might help, too.

    For statistics on why use open source software, see: Why FLOSS? Look at the Numbers! []

  • Here's the link(PDF) to open source policy of Croatian government: []

    If you need any additional info - don't hesistate to contact me.

Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this-- no dog exchanges bones with another. -- Adam Smith