Government CIOs keen on open source software
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.