EU Open Standards: We Want Actions, Not Words

Open standards has been a recurring theme here on Open Enterprise. It's also been the occasion of one of the most disgraceful U-turns by the European Commission. That took place in the wake of the European Interoperability Framework v1, which...

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Open standards has been a recurring theme here on Open Enterprise. It's also been the occasion of one of the most disgraceful U-turns by the European Commission. That took place in the wake of the European Interoperability Framework v1, which called for any claimed patents to be licensed irrevocably on a royalty-free basis. But when EIF v2 came out, we found the following:

Intellectual property rights related to the specification are licensed on FRAND terms or on a royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary and open source software.

In other words, EIF v2 is a disaster for free software, since FRAND terms are not compatible with it except in odd, atypical cases. This was a clear instance of the European Commission giving in to lobbyists in a particularly craven manner.

So when I read the following, I was naturally sceptical:

The Commission today releases a new policy to help public authorities avoid dependence on a single ICT supplier. Following the recommendations in this new "against lock-in" approach could save the EU's public sector more than ‚¬1.1 billion a year. For example, open tendering procedures can attract increased numbers of bidders with better value bids (doubling the number of bidders typically lowers contract size by 9%).

To be fair, the policy document [pdf] does have an excellent summary of the problem:

Many organisations are ‘locked' into their ICT systems because detailed knowledge about how the system works is available only to the provider, so that when they need to buy new components or licences only that provider can deliver. This lack of competition leads to higher prices and some ‚¬ 1.1 billion per year is lost unnecessarily in the public sector alone.

Making better use of standards allowing competitors to provide alternative solutions will diminish lock-in and increase competition, thus reducing prices and potentially increasing quality. This is because standards determine the key element of a technology and create a level playing field for all ICT suppliers. More suppliers will be able to submit offers to invitations to tender for standards-based systems, leading to more competition and choice.

The Digital Agenda for Europe identified lock-in as a problem, and its Action 23 committed to providing guidance on the link between ICT standardisation and public procurement to help public authorities use standards to promote efficiency and reduce lock-in. To that end, this Communication is accompanied by a practical guide on how to make better use of standards in procurement, in particular in the public sector.

The document goes on to give some interesting – and depressing – stats on lock-in:

A survey carried out in 2011 (2011 Survey) among public procurement officials in the European Union Member States showed that of the 244 procuring authorities surveyed, at least 40 % considered that changing their existing ICT solution would be too costly because it would involve changing many other systems that use the data of the system that they would like to change. Of those surveyed, 25 % felt they would not be able to change their ICT solutions for fear that their information would not be transferable.

Moreover:

A number of studies have indeed indicated an extensive use of brand names in procurement documents. The percentage of invitations to tender referring to brand names ranges from 16% to 36%, depending on the samples used in the studies. In addition, the majority of the 244 respondents to the 2011 Survey use brand names in invitations to tender, with 23 % either always or often referring to brand names, and just under 40 % only sometimes doing so.

The Communication explores the advantages of basing procurement on open standards, and singles out four in particular:

Interaction with citizens — efficiency gains and free choice

this will make it possible for citizens to supply data only once to any public administration. When these same data are needed in other situations, they can be automatically retrieved and re-used, making interactions between citizens and public authorities more efficient at local, regional, national and European level. If this same level of interoperability is to be achieved between non-standards-based systems, the cost and complexity will be significantly higher.

Further, if proprietary products rather than standards-based products are used, this may limit access by citizens, who can only interact with public authorities if they have access to and use the same product. If public authorities use standards-based products, citizens can also use another product that implements those standards.

…

Interaction with other public authorities

When public authorities introduce standards-based alternatives it will be easier to develop the necessary cross-border services.

…

More innovation

If [digital maps, meteorological, legal, traffic, financial, economic data etc] is made available in formats that correspond to common standards, it will greatly help application developers to ensure that their applications work with data from many different public authorities and that citizens can use these applications wherever they may be in Europe.

In addition, an ICT system based on standards is easier to evolve and better able to deliver the future services that public authorities are expected to provide to citizens in an efficient and innovative manner. The standards deliver the necessary hooks that anyone with ICT knowledge can use to build add-ons to the system or to migrate data from one system to another, thus increasing the potential for use.

…

Lower costs for ICT suppliers

ICT suppliers are also affected by lock-in. The 2011 Survey showed that the majority of ICT suppliers would also be in favour of more open procurement based on standards, as this would open markets to all of them, thus increasing the competitiveness of the EU ICT market. However, it is clear that the sales prospects of certain dominant leading suppliers may be adversely affected if new entrants are able to compete more effectively.

So, what exactly does the European Commission propose? Perhaps the most concrete result of all these good thoughts is a 42-page guide [.pdf], which introduces itself as follows:

This Guide is designed for use by procurement officials, IT managers, strategists and
architects within public organisations, and policy makers at a wider government level. It is intended to help those actors who are responsible for both planning and purchasing ICT systems and services under the EU procurement directives to ensure fully effective competition following best procurement practice, in particular by

€¢ Minimising the risk of becoming locked in to particular suppliers for unduly long periods, and

€¢ Making the best use of ICT standards.

The Guide does not give a list of recommended standards for use by public authorities when planning and procuring ICT goods and services. This would not be possible since the standards most relevant to each awarding authority will vary according to particularfunctional needs and the wider set of systems the procured system has to interact with.

However, the Guide does:

€¢ Offer recommendations on elements of best practice in ICT procurement, with practical examples.

€¢ Suggest some concrete ways in which procurement documents and contracts for ICT might be expressed. The selection process and the acceptance of results are not covered, however.

€¢ Give references to sources of more detailed procurement guidance and information.

This Guide is intended to help public authorities procure ICT goods and services, and is not intended as legal advice. Those responsible for procurement should ensure that all recommended stages comply with national and EU legal requirements, and seek legal support wherever necessary.

It contains much detailed and highly-practical information, including sample texts for requests for licences that allow sharing, and is well-worth reading.

The main EU document also contains the following commitment:

The European Commission calls upon all public authorities in the Member States to use the Guide to help alleviate lock-in of their ICT systems, thus encouraging competition in Europe and underpinning the development of the European digital single market, including by ensuring greater access to and use of public data and information. The European Commission will also apply the Guide to make better use of standards in its own ICT systems and calls upon the other European institutions to follow suit.

Now, that's very interesting, because of the following fact:

The European Commission has been buying Microsoft software since 1993 without an open and public competition to assess alternative products, according to documents released to Computer Weekly.

As a result of striking its sixth successive uncontested deal with Microsoft in May this year 2011, the Commission has ensured Microsoft will have dominated the desktop computing environment of European institutions for 20 years without allowing a single rival to compete for the business.

If you were looking for a prime example of lock-in, and absolutely how not to do it, the European Commission would certainly offer a textbook case.

So that raises a crucial question: is the European Commission serious about ending lock-in in the European Union? If it is, it should lead from the front, and break that outrageous and costly 20-year monopoly that the US company has enjoyed at the heart of European power. The Commission should start immediately to deploy open source solutions throughout its many organisational units – specifically, on the desktop, and not just server-side – and draw up a plan to enable the entire IT system to break free of this egregious lock-in in the shortest time possible.

If the European Commission does not do this, then we shall know that once again, it is all mouth and no trousers, and that its fine-sounding open standards policy is yet another waste of electrons that will be ignored, and can safely be consigned to the overflowing dustbin of the EU's past failures in the world of IT procurement.

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