SA OSS task team finalises action plan

By   |  August 24, 2005

The open source task team, a collection of government, private and technology experts with an interest in promoting open source, wrapped up its conference in Sandton, Johannesburg, yesterday with a finalised open source action plan which it hopes will be presented to South Africa\’s government. The document\’s goal is to affect policy and legislation regarding open source software in the public sector.

Spearheaded by Mark Shuttleworth and the Go Open Source campaign, the action plan contains recommendations for both implementing open source software as well as licensing government software and information under open source licences. Skills development and education are also covered.

The policy document in some respects supercedes an existing policy document compiled in 2003 by the Government Information Technology Officers\’ Council and chaired by the CSIR\’s Nhlanhla Mabaso, who attended the conference this week. The existing policy document has been languishing on the oss.gov.za website, seemingly without any activity since January 2003.

“There were very early discussion regarding open source software at cabinet level, but that\’s been in a holding pattern ever since. Much of the work done now was to revitalise the work that had been done before, and to add new ideas like open content,” says Shuttleworth.

The failure of previous attempts at passing policy regarding open source in government does not bode well for this document. Having Shuttleworth on board might make the difference this time round — the amateur astronaut is a member of Thabo Mbeki\’s international ICT advisory committee and as such has the president\’s ear on IT policy. However, if it is to succeed, careful attention must be paid to not stepping on anyone\’s toes — that means avoiding legislation in favour of project-level best practice, and asking rather than telling government what to do. “We can\’t write a policy document for government,” admits Shuttleworth.

The next step for the policy document will be to get it before cabinet. It is still unclear as to which government department will be tasked with this duty. If the right ministry takes it before cabinet, it could improve the chances of the document\’s success dramatically.

Like its predecessor, the current draft still calls for OSS to be used in preference to proprietary platforms. “It\’s also important not to put people against the wall,” says Shuttleworth. “To make people build open source software from scratch [when there is a proprietary solution already available] is not wise at all.”

Shuttleworth says that the policy document calls on international open source experiences. The weekend before the conference, he called on the open source community to submit international governmental Ubuntu open source projects to a wiki, which he says elicited 150 examples of open source in government.

“You need to find out who\’s already doing good work around the world, partner with them, and take 80 percent of that work. For the remaining 20 percent that\’s uniquely South African, we need to take a leadership position,” he says.

One hotly debated topic was whether or not to recommend legislation, with the quorum eventually choosing against, based partially on Mabaso\’s input. There were also concerns raised that legislating the use of OSS would create negative media, to which one speaker stated: “We don\’t make policy based on headlines.”

Government departments, including the Department of Communications, the CSIR and Seta, were strongly represented. Private sector attendees included HP, Obsidian, and, surprisingly, Microsoft. Microsoft purportedly did not add to the discussion.

Media representatives were banned from the discussions, and the policy document has not been issued to the press yet.

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