Selling open source software into the public sector


Why is it so hard to sell Free, Open Source solutions into the Public Sector especially Local Authorities?

You would have thought that it would be easy - after all FOSS solutions for services such as e-mail, collaboration software, and learning platforms are demonstrably cheaper and more effective than their proprietary equivalents.

You would also be encouraged by the Government mandating that all public sector IT procurements show that due consideration has been given to Open Source solutions alongside proprietary ones.

Similarly, you would have thought the impending cuts in public spending needed to pay for government borrowing would focus minds on low cost solutions.

..not a bit of it.

Local Authorities remain wedded to Microsoft Exchange, Sharepoint, Office, MSSQL... They will buy their loo paper from Morrsions and fill up their cars at Tesco's but they cling to their expensive IT.

Why is this?

Herd Behaviour

Obviously the simple explanation is that they do whatever the other is doing, there is safety in the herd, or rather there is the illusion of safety in the herd.

For example, in the wild, a stray from a real herd (wildebeest, sheep?) is very vulnerable and can easily be picked off. It makes sense not to be outside the pack. Local Authority officials are, like their animal counterparts, avowedly 'Risk Averse'. They too feel they will be picked off if they make a non-herd or maverick decision and it goes wrong. In an increasingly litigious and blame orientated culture they are probably right.

But on the other hand when the water-holes start to dry up our herd perishes as one, unable to change and adapt. The analogy is so obvious I won't pursue it.

The difference is our bureaucrats are not actually wildebeest, they are humans set in a context where they behave like wildebeest. In contrast, humans set in a different context, say small entrepreneurial businesses, behave entirely unlike wildebeest...polecats or rats maybe.

The question now becomes can our human-herds change their behaviour and become entrepreneurial or will they perish in the money-drought, clinging as they expire, to their latest Vista PC?

Won't Change/Can Change/Will change?

Unfortunately, nearly all of our more ancient anthropological evidence says that such groups do not change their behaviour even when faced with extinction. The Easter Island megaliths are a mournful testament to a culture that deforested its island and died out. Today, the jury is out on whether we can change our behaviour to confront global warming issues.

So, returning to the less apocalyptic issue of ICT procurement, how do we change the human-herd response and encourage change?

An Answer

The herd response is strongest when faced with the the unfathomable. A recent press article suggested that humans are hard-wired to 'believe' when they cannot 'understand'. This was further suggested as forming the basis of our predisposition to religious belief.

Herd analogies are used frequently in a religious context. 'Flocks' and 'shepherds' are obvious examples. Due to the mysteries that are being confronted, these 'flocks' are normally guided by experts whether they be shamans, gurus, vicars or immans.

But this this behaviour is not appropriate when applied to IT procurement!

But for most people, especially those who run our bureaucracies, Information Technology is unfathomable. Thus they too must be guided in its mysteries by experts. It is through them they learn to 'believe' but, unfortunately, these experts are working for vendors and thus may not have the buyers' interests at heart.

Unfortunately, faced with the unfathomable, there is no rationale for a group to adopt non-herd behaviour but there is every incentive to believe in the current paradigm. This is why even the most eloquent Open Source advocate  only achieves the fewest of 'converts'.

The answer, the only answer, is for our bureaucracies to become inhabited at senior level by technocrats (or, even better, politicans) to whom the whole business is far from unfathomable.

Replacing proprietary solutions with Open Source solutions is not the same as leaving the flock and being eaten by the wolf, but to understand that you have to understand a little more about IT. Otherwise all you can do is choose to believe one side or another.

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