From 2003, the South African government has been engaged in an interesting dance with FOSS – free open source software. By Phehello Mofokeng, director of Geko Labs, a Johannesburg-based ERP integration and implementation firm
In 2007, after a range of consultative meetings and other forms of flirtation with industry experts, Chief Information Officers and other members of the public, a formal policy – to the effect that South African government will adopt open source software wherever possible – was officially adopted.
The idea behind this policy was that, where possible government should avoid expensive proprietary software licensing and the collusive vendor lock-in practice of commercial software corporations.
The commercial software vendors have created an ecosystem for themselves, where only they benefit – you use their software, technicians must take courses that they accredit. Only certain software packages can work with certain types of computers or machines or server technologies. And they are very expensive.
Free open source software comes in to rid users and ailing governments of this problem.
So from 2007 onwards, the SA government was supposed to embark on a massive campaign of open source software adoption.
Open source software adoption is not a simple and straightforward choice; it is complex and has far-reaching consequences.
There are indications that some of our government departments have adopted open source software at one level or another.
As an open source software evangelist and tech entrepreneur with vested interests in its large-scale adoption, I think no one can set trends and blaze trails like government in this area.
Our government’s ambiguity in relation to this can be understood even though it is quite frustrating.
Government is a large entity and in order to apply one system, one philosophy (because open source is not just software, it is a way of thinking and a way of doing things) and one functional software approach needs a lot of doing, lots of conversation, lots of conversion and lots of change management.
Firstly, government needs champions for this course. In fact, any client that moves from one system to another needs a champion, a go-to guy to lead the implementation of this new way of thinking.
This champion needs to be a personality who is able to change perceptions and to convince large numbers of government employees, service providers, executive staff and the public that think “they know it all” and who often are resistant to change.
This champion must be an evangelist – not only of FOSS – but of change in general. He/She should be willing to discuss the pros and cons – equally – of FOSS, without over-emphasising the benefits.
Secondly, there has to be a direct message of change – not of changing just software – but of changing business mindset, operations, and processes in the said government circles.
This change has to be measurable. And I do believe that this change must start small. There is no area of operation where FOSS is as strong as on web technology.
Another advantage of web technology FOSS is that it is easy to adopt, it is measurable and it is extremely easy to implement and even the most change-resistant people cannot avoid its clear benefits.
This is the reason that for our inaugural GovtMatrix, we chose the web to measure how far the South African government has come to finally implementing its own policy of FOSS adoption and usage.
In our first inaugural GovtMatrix Measure (published in Nov 2015), we analysed government’s web products and services that run open source software and on open source philosophy.
These can be easily measured and quantified. We measured all the governments’ websites to see if they use open source software and standards.
The reason for this is that, websites are the easiest products that can run open software and can be implemented on open standards.
And the results were staggering. It was clear that government had not lost its interest in FOSS, but the pace of adoption was extremely slow.
It was, however, evident that the SA government does not yet consider web as its most important communication tool.
If it did, the level of adherence to international best practice and FOSS standards would be much higher than we found.