Archive for April 30th, 2009

Helping OSS adoption in public administrations: some resources

It was a busy and happy week, and among the many things I received several requests for information on how to facilitate adoption of OSS by public administrations. After the significant interest of a few years ago, it seems that the strong focus on “digital citizenship” and the need to increase interoperability with other administrations is pushing OSS again (and the simplification, thanks to the reduction in procurement hurdles, also helps). I have worked in this area for some years, first in the SPIRIT project (open source for health care), then in the COSPA and OpenTTT projects, that were oriented towards facilitating OSS adoption. I will try to provide some links that may be useful for administrations looking to OSS:

  • Let’s start with requirement analysis. What is important, what is not, and how to prioritize things was one of the arguments discussed in COSPA, and two excellent deliverables were produced (maybe a bit theoretical, but you can skip the boring parts): analysis of requirements for OS and ODS and prioritization of requirements (both pdf files).
  • As part of our guide in the FLOSSMETRICS project we have a list of best practices, that may be useful; in general, the guide does have some more material from various European projects. I would like to thank PJ from Groklaw, that hosted my work for discussion there, and to the many groklawers that helped in improving it.
  • One of the best migration guide ever created, by the Germany Ministry of the Interior (KBST), is available in english (pdf file). It covers many practical problems, server and desktop migrations, project planning, legal aspects (like changing contractual relations with vendors), evaluation of economics and efficiency aspects and much more. Unfortunately the 2.1 edition is still not available in english…
  • For something simpler, some guidance and economic comparison from the Treasury board of Canada;
  • and a very detailed desktop migration redbook from IBM.
  • The European Open Source Observatory does have a long and interesting list of case studies, both positive and negative (so the reader can get a balanced view).

And now for some additional comment, based on my personal experience:

  • A successful OSS migration or adoption is not only a technical problem, but a management and social problem as well. A significant improvement in success rates can be obtained simply by providing a simple, 1 hour “welcoming” session to help users in understanding the changes and the reasons behind it (as well as providing some information on OSS and its differences with proprietary software).
  • In most public administrations there are “experts” that provide most of the informal IT help; some of those users may felt threatened by the change of IT infrastructure, as it will remove their “skill advantage”. So, a simple and effective practice is to search for them and for passionate users and enlist them as “champions”. Those champions are offered the opportunity for further training and additional support, so they can continue in their role without disruptions.
  • Perform a real cost analysis of the actual, proprietary IT infrastructure: sometimes huge surprises are found, both in contractual aspects and in actual costs incurred that are “hidden” under alternative balance voices.
  • If a migration requires a long adaptation time, make sure that the management remains the same for the entire duration, or that the new management understands and approves what was done. One of the most sad experiences is to see a migration stop halfways because the municipality coalition changes, and the new coalition has no understanding of what was planned and why (“no one remembers the reasons for the migration” was one of the phrases that I heard once).
  • Create an open table between local administrations: sometimes you will find someone that already is using OSS and simply told no one. We had a local health agency that silently swapped MS Office with OpenOffices in the new PCs for hospital workers, and nobody noticed :-)
  • Have an appropriate legislative policy: informative campaigns and mandatory adoption are the two most efficient approaches to create OSS adoption, while subsidization has a negative welfare effect: “We show that a part from subsidization policies, which have been proved to harm social surplus, supporting OSS through mandatory adoption and information campaign may have positive welfare effects. When software adoption is affected by strong network effects, mandatory adoption and information campaign induce an increase in social surplus” (Comino, Manenti, “Free/Open Source vs Closed Source Software: Public Policies in the Software Market”). Also, in the TOSSAD conference proceedings, Gencer, Ozel, Schmidbauer, Tunalioglu, “Free & Open Source Software, Human Development and Public Policy Making: International Comparison”.
  • Check for adverse policy effects: In one of my case studies I found a large PA that was forced back to commercial software, because the state administration was subsidizing only the cost of proprietary software, while OSS was considered to be “out of procurement rules” and thus not paid for. This does also have policy implications, and require a careful choice of budget voices by the adopters administration.

We found that by presenting some “exemplar” OSS projects that can be used immediately, the exploration phase usually turns into a real adoption experiment. The tool that I use as an introduction are:

  • Document management: Alfresco. It is simple to install, easy to use and with good documentation, and can be introduced as a small departmental alternative to the “poor man repository”, that is a shared drive on the network. Start with the file system interface, and show the document previews and the search functionalities (more complex activities, like workflow, can be demonstrated in a second time). Nuxeo is also a worthy contender.
  • Groupware: my personal favorite, Zimbra, that can provide everything that Exchange does, and has a recently released standalone desktop client that really is a technical marvel. If you are still forced into Outlook you can use Funambol (another OSS gem) that with a desktop client can provide two-way synchronization with Outlook, exactly like Exchange.
  • Project management: a little known project from Austria is called OnePoint, and does have a very well designed web and native interface for the traditional project management tasks.
  • Workstation management: among the many choices, if (as it usually happens) the majority of the desktops are Windows-based there is a long-standing german project called Opsi, that provides automatic OS install, patch management, HW&SW inventory and much more.

Of course there are many other tools, but by presenting an initial, small subset it is usually possible to raise the PA interest in trying and testing out more. For some other software packages, you can check the software catalog that we provided as part of our FLOSSMETRICS guide. I will be happy to answer to individual requests for software that will be posted as comments to this articles, or sent to me by twitter (@cdaffara); if there are enough interest, I will prepare a follow-up post with more tools.

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