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Government CIOs keen on open source software

By   |  March 17, 2009

Free and open source software continues to gain traction in the South African government with more than 90 percent of CIOs and IT managers in favour of using OSS in their departments. And Arno Webb, head of the State IT Agency’s (Sita) open source programme, says that while open source migrations have been slower and not as widespread as originally hoped, government is now firmly on a path to wider open source use. We speak to Webb to gauge government’s open source progress.

A couple of years ago the South African government was at the forefront of a growing awareness of open source software: ministers spoke out in favour of open source software and against software patents, the Cabinet approved an open source strategy and public service employees threw themselves behind open source in standards battles such as the ODF-OOXML process. In the past few months, however, things have been a lot quieter.

But quiet doesn’t mean that government isn’t making progress with its open source strategy, says Webb. Rather, he says, government is entering a stage in which it is finalising standards for OSS migrations, building OSS skills through internship programmes and marketing the benefits of free and open source software throughout government.

“The move to open source software has not been as fast as we would have liked, but we are now entering a new era. In the past, open source deployments were mostly spontaneous and ad-hoc. We now have a more systematic approach.” In years past many government departments pursued their own open source migrations, usually in isolation from one another, and with varying degrees of success. In most cases the level of open source implementation was a factor how many open source “champions” a department had rather than because of any structured approach. The result was that just a handful of departments, such as those of public service and science and technology, became key drivers of open source software in the public service.

Now, says Webb, the State IT Agency (Sita) is assuming the role of paving the way for OSS migration by finalising standards and conducting pilot projects to make it easier for all to implement open source software successfully. Webb says that while there is a significant interest in pursuing OSS from most departments, there are still many that are waiting to see how other departments fare. “It’s important that we show successes,” he says, which is why Sita has been working to isolate key applications that will give them the “quick wins” that are needed. Much of this attention has focused on the backend stack rather than on the desktop and includes applications such as Zimbra for email and Alfresco for content management as well as extending the use of the OpenDocument format in the public service. Webb also says that Sita expects all government department websites to be running on open source software “very soon”.

While there are some government divisions that are more advanced than others in their use of open source software Webb says that Sita is not targeting specific departments for OSS migration. Rather, Sita’s open source programme is in place to establish standards and frameworks for all departments to migrate.

The other role of the open source programme is to market open source software throughout government structures, a role that it appears to have done fairly well. A survey of the IT officers at the recent government CIO FOSS workshop found that 50 percent of attendees, most of which hold a position of CIO or IT management in their department, were “extremely keen” on open source implementation for their department. Another 40 percent said that they were “keen” on OSS. In contrast, just 5.6 percent said that they were not interested in using open source software and no-one completely opposed open source software.

Lack of skills and fears of a shortage of support, however, remains one of the main perceived obstacles to open source implementation in government – 57 percent of officers cited this as a “severe” obstacle – something that the Webb says Sita is actively working on. More than 30 students will this month complete Sita’s first OSS internship programme. The year-long internship includes six months of classroom work – using the LPI 101 and 102 qualification – and six months on-site work in a government office. The intake for the second year’s internship programme will take place this month.

While support capacity remains an obstacle for many IT managers in government departments, user resistance to open source software is less of a concern. Just 25 percent of IT managers said that opposition from users to switching to open source software was a “severe” constraint. In comparison, 62.9 percent said that they only experienced “slight” to “moderate” opposition from users.

Asked what the key needs were for government to succeed with its open source migration plans were, Webb said that commitment to OSS from departments, formalised and finalised standards for OSS use and improved support and skills capacity are key.


12 Responses to “Government CIOs keen on open source software”

  1. Government CIOs keen on open source software - Tectonic | Open Source News
    March 17th, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

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  4. Government CIOs keen on open source software
    March 18th, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    […] Tectonic » Government CIOs keen on open source software Share and Enjoy: […]

  5. Smilla Jasperson
    March 19th, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    Your flag is the wrong way round.

  6. Alastair Otter
    March 19th, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    You’re right. And I have fixed it. Clearly a case of me not paying enough attention. Thank you.

  7. Rincewind
    March 21st, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    I keep hearing these promises, but meanwhile I am continually confronted by people (mostly senior management) in places like Armscor who push proprietary technology like .NET and proclaim that OSS will NEVER be adopted. One guy even made the comment that Bill Gates will not allow it! And this is a senior guy, WTF!

  8. rob allen
    March 22nd, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    Thanks for the update – Is Tectonic now the way that SA government communicates about open source?

    The current Sita website – – has missing links where is should have its important content – the 2nd FOSS newletter has a file name suggesting march 2009 but unfortunately links to a 404 page not found. The same result comes from trying to look at roadmap/strategy.

  9. Philip
    March 23rd, 2009 @ 7:08 am

    Hi All.

    This is great but there are still government agencies like the City of Johannesburg
    who have banned the use of Open Source Software in their organisation.

  10. Malcolm
    March 27th, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    The philosophical is not so much of an issue as the practical – it’s not about perceptions of OSS acceptability, or ‘finalising standards’, ‘building OSS skills’, or ‘marketing the benefits’ (which is mostly irrelevant to what Open Source is all about, anyway), but rather about actual deployment. Slow adoption is due to the harsh reality that most Government types simply do not give a fig, as they’re more inclined to stagnate in their comfort zones and pontificate about irrelevancies.

    I also believe that SITA have disqualified themselves as OSS champions for Government, as, besides their shockingly poor performance record when it comes to issues of governance, there is no real evidence that they have actually done anything substantial, despite what Webb says. In point of fact, just this past week I saw a SITA proposal openly stating that they would use a proprietary tool-set (guess which?!) in their service offering!

    What needs to be done here, is that OSS deployments must be included in whatever performance measurement mechanism is in place – in simple terms, every GITO must have a ‘number target’ to meet, failing which they should be fired…

  11. Andrew
    March 30th, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    IMHO Govt CIO’s hardly every have a grasp of anything except jargon like “stakeholders” [vampire killers?], “roleplayers” and so on.

    OK, so that might invite a flamewar, but seriously, Linux and FLOSS needs good marketing by people who actually know it. Not more hot air by political appointments, since FLOSS is (again IMHO) judged more harshly than its proprietary alternative. Change is scary, and FLOSS needs (more) friendly faces showing that it too, can “just work”… and/or offering solutions where it doesn’t seem to “just work”.

    Failing to deliver on FLOSS promises is a good way of validating the “it costs less, so it’s worth less” mentality.

    I am a Linux fan, consistently, which is why I hate empty promises.

  12. Andrew
    March 30th, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    @Andrew: Still very glad they’re going FLOSS route though, that acknowledge that it couldn’t have been easy with all the “open standards” misinformation that must have been thrown at govt. So whilst they may get it wrong some of the time. I believe they made the right decision here.

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