A couple of weeks ago, the innocuously-named "Public Administration Committee" of the House of Commons published a rather more surprisingly-named report entitled "Government and IT- "A Recipe For Rip-Offs": Time For A New Approach". That's pretty much all you need to know – it basically says most of the things many of us have been moaning about in the field of UK IT procurement for years, but with rather more authority.
However, just because people have finally dared to name the problem doesn't mean that it will go away. Already, there's a backlash against the backlash, and the danger is that after a little righteous indignation, things will slowly sink back to the status quo of big consultancies using little or no free software in their bids and implementations.
So how can we address this perennial problem? Perhaps we need to stop banging our heads against the same rather thick brick wall, and take a completely different approach. Maybe we could learn from other governments that don't seem to have the same problems – like that of Brazil, for example.
Although the country is experiencing some rather worrying shifts in its overall policy on openness, notably on the copyright side, its government's record on open source is still pretty impressive. I don't claim to know much about the details of Brazil's procurement system, but I can't help feeling the existence of something called the Public Software Portal has something to do with it.
Here's the background to that project, from an entire magazine supplement devoted to the subject of Brazilian public software – an indication of just what a rich area this is. Not surprisingly, it's in Portuguese, so I've used Google Translate for this and in what follows.
In 2005, however, the Federal Government has licensed the solution for hardware inventory and software CACIC (Auto Configurator and Collector Information Computer), developed by Dataprev under the second version of the GPL in Portuguese. Soon, a large community of users, developers and service providers formed around the solution, which became the basis for the definition of Public Software and its realization with the Public Software Portal (SPB). Six years later, the publication of the Instruction No 01, on 17/01/2011, sets forth the procedures for the development, provision and use of the SPB. Today, more than 50 solutions have been available in the portal, there are over 100,000 registered users in it, as well as a large number of companies registered as service providers for these solutions – some of them are about 200, scattered throughout the nationwide!
As Simon Phipps wrote a few months ago, such software are also covered by a special trademark licence:
The License for Trademarks (LicenÃ§a PÃºblica de Marca, or LPM) adds additional rights on top of those delivered by open source. It ensures that any trademarks used in the software can be freely used by the community and means that control of trademarks can't be used to chill the ability to exercise the four freedoms.
This is creative and advanced thinking from the Brazilians. Looking at the controversy surrounding the Hudson project for example, where Oracle is using its (contested) control of the Hudson name as a way to dictate to the rest of the community, or the LibreOffice project's lack of success in using the OpenOffice.org name, maybe we need something like Brazil's LPM elsewhere too.
The main Public Software Portal has an associated "virtual public market", where organisations – both public and private – can find suppliers who will help with one of the 50 applications on the portal. This seems like a great idea, and it would be good to set up something equivalent in the UK. As it happens, the Brazilians hope to spread their ideas overseas, as the supplement explains:
For the future, is expected to creation of the Public Software Portal International – SPI. The SPI will be objective to improve the Brazilian experience bringing together the knowledge produced in several countries, mainly in public sector. Moreover, it is expected that the portal will continue generating jobs, knowledge, exchange of experiences and the approach between the public sector,
industry and private Brazilian citizens.
This sounds like exactly the kind of thing that the appropriate people working within the UK government should explore, rather than waiting passively for the inevitable next report on the Great UK IT Rip-Off...