Open source in government tenders

Computerworld reports:

A requirement that a component of a government IT tender be open-source has sparked debate on whether such a specification is appropriate.

The relevant part of the RFP (for the State Services Commission) puts the requirement as follows:

We are looking for an Open Source solution. By Open Source we mean:

  • Produce standards-compliant output;
  • Be documented and maintainable into the future by suitable developers;
  • Be vendor-independent, able to be migrated if needed;
  • Contain full source code. The right to review and modify this as needed shall be available to the SSC and its appointed contractors.

The controversy is whether this is a mandate of open source licensing (which it isn’t). The government should not mandate open source licensing or proprietary licensing on commercial-line tenders. More precisely, it should not rule solutions in or out based on whether they are offered (to others) under an open source licence. The best options should be on the table.

The four stated requirements are quite sensible. As the SSC spokesman said, there is nothing particularly unusual about them in government procurement. These requirements (or variations on them) are similarly common in private-sector procurement and development contracts. In the public sector in particular though, vendor independence and standards-compliance help avoid farcical situations like the renegotiation of the Ministry of Health’s bulk licensing deal.

Open standards and interoperability in public sector procurement is gaining traction around the world. Recently, the European Union called for “the introduction of open standards and interoperability in government procurement of IT”. And in the recent UK election, all three of the main parties included open source procurement in their manifestos.

So why the controversy in this case? Most likely it’s the perhaps inapt use of the term “open source” in the RFP (even though the intended meaning is clarified immediately afterwards). The term “open source” is a hot-button word that means many things to many people, but today it generally means having code licensed under a recognised open source licence, many of which are copyleft. Many vendors simply could not (or would never want to) licence their code under such a licence, and it would be uncommercial and somewhat capricious for a Government tender to rule out some (or even the majority of) candidates based on such criteria.

However, it is clear that the SSC did not use the term in that context, and does not intend to impose such a requirement. An appropriate source-available licence is as capable of meeting the requirements as an open source licence (see my post on source available vs open source). The requirement for disclosure of code to contractors and future modification can be simply dealt with on standard commercial IP licensing terms.

A level playing field for open and proprietary solutions is the essential starting point, with evaluation – which in most cases should include open standards and interoperability – proceeding from there.