Open e-government Sauce?

John Gotze’s been getting excited about open source opportunities in recent posts, driven by the usual suspects promoting laws to prevent it being given preference over proprietary solutions and a couple of conferences here and there (the latter ‘there’ being a Danish ‘there’). I’ve been reading all the stuff for a while now, partly driven by pointed comments from John Lettice, partly by our own open source policy and partly by excitement such as John’s. I guess I’m struggling a little over some points and, in trying to get clarity over these points, all I get is the usual positional arguments. This (the e-government agenda) is not a religion for me – but it is a passion.

So, a few points, questions or issues:

Let’s say I get some software that’s open source – maybe JBOSS (an app server that competes with weblogic amongst other things). Being government there are bound to be some things we’ll want it to do that it doesn’t do today – perhaps give it better clustering support, enhanced performance, stronger security features or more advanced administration tools (all problems with the present version from what I can see). It may not be in my best interests, as government, to put the code that I’ve modified back into the public domain, especially not in the security features. If I do, then people know (far, far better than they know today) what we’re doing and can look for ways to exploit it. If I don’t, then next time there’s an upgrade (based on work of all the people who do put their work back, I’ve got to do lots of integration testing, regression testing and so on. So … do I put the enhancements in the public domain or not?

Let’s then say that using the software I create a product – like a DIS box that connects departments (and local authorities etc.) to the Gateway. The software that I develop will need to be installed around dozens or even hundreds of departments. Now, I don’t do that … commercial organisations do that and they handle the integration and whatnot too. But how do they do that if I’ve built the open source version of a DIS? Do I just give it to them, can I sell it to them to recoup the costs that I have incurred in putting the thing together in the first place? What about if it’s not me that puts the DIS together, but a commercial organisation … how do they recover their costs? They can’t just sell the hardware … and if they sell a support agreement, then isn’t it going to cost about the same as the software licence in the first place (on the basis that it must recover costs)?

Something else that is puzzling me is all of the talk about open source and not much sight of it actually happening. I hear a lot about people not wanting to go public because they worry that it will send a signal to someone or other and that it might be misinterpreted. This strikes me as crap, but there are not major stories every day on new adoptions of open source. Or are there and I’m just missing them? I mean the German government announced not long ago that they were going to pretty much mandate it; IBM is putting at least a billion dollars into open source developments …. but what’s being done? And I mean on a scale, commercial, fully performant basis here. I know that this site runs on linux – and that’s a part of open source but I don’t think it’s the big part. For me it’s the packages and integration of systems that are going to be important – how do you take JBOSS and some open source content system and an open source caching software and piece them all together to deliver a fully functional portal with no commercial software in it? When it’s built, how do you keep it current, add functions and capability, block security holes, deliver scheduled releases with fully tested feature sets and so on. Is it just too early in the programme to expect this?

I don’t want to be flamed here – I want to know how to get round (or over) what appear to be the early obstacles in the roll-out and scale deployment of open source software.

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