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Netherlands' open-source policy goes double Dutch

While the Netherlands means well in its attempt to foster open source adoption, the management of its policy may actually be hurting open source uptake, not helping it.

Government policies favoring open-source software adoption should be wildly popular within the open-source crowd. Yet, at an open-source conference in Amsterdam today, I kept hearing the opposite. Despite the Dutch government's best intentions to foster open-source adoption, some people think it may actually be doing the opposite.

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By many measures, the Netherlands is a great place for open-source software. In 2007, the government started to phase in a policy that gave preferential treatment to open-source software in IT purchasing decisions. Initially, at least, the policy seems to have been a success, with a July 2009 study highlighting a wide array of open-source software in use by government.

Sounds good, right?

Maybe not. According to sources within the government and others that sell to the government (both proprietary and open-source vendors), the government's rigid definition and management of the policy has more often than not thwarted its attempts to go open.

At its core, however, the problem derives from a mismatch between ends and means. The government's goal--"to increase the sustainability of information and innovation, while lowering costs through the reuse of data"--is not always best achieved by open source. A proprietary program with a broad community that is fully open standards-based could actually be a better solution to achieve this end than an open-source solution, particularly if it has a small community and smaller adoption.

That's because "openness" is not simply a measure of software's licensing. That's not even necessarily the most important consideration, as Tim O'Reilly reminds us.

But the government's policy doesn't look beyond whether the software in question is licensed under an OSI-approved license. This is what we thought of open source five years ago, but these days, this line of thinking is increasingly outdated.

An OSI license is a fruitful beginning to an open-source policy, but if it's the end, then the Dutch government's policy begins and ends with lawyers, who are almost certainly not the best equipped to evaluate IT solutions.

Indeed, the commentary I heard today confirmed that inbound software is first reviewed by the Dutch government's lawyers. If there's not an OSI-approved license attached to it, even if the software is provided by an open-source vendor with full rights to view and modify the software (but not redistribute it), it's out.

This wouldn't be so bad if there was a plethora of alternatives in each given product category for the government to choose. But there isn't.

Hence, more often than not the government ends up buying an established proprietary solution. It's very difficult for most products to run the legal gauntlet that the government has established. The vendors that do are either too small to effectively service the government's requirements, or they're Red Hat, which focuses on a limited infrastructure product portfolio.

Having painted itself into a legal corner, there's one easy thing for the government to do: buy the same proprietary software it always has.

Given that the policy allows for selection of a proprietary product if a suitable open-source alternative doesn't exist, the stated preference for open-source solutions is turning into a minor speed bump on the way to continued acquisition of proprietary software.

This is silly.

The Dutch government should focus on the end: open, interoperable solutions. True, doing so requires more thought than a binary decision based on a license. But it's a much smarter policy to balance a range of factors (freedoms and constraints of the license, community associated with the product, open standards, payment model [license fee vs. subscription], etc.), in order to reach a more thoughtful position on a given piece of software.

Such a policy would result in more open-source software adoption, not less. It would let open-source software compete on broader criteria than the license. Open source, and the trends it has inspired, are much more than a license. Other considerations, such as open data policies, take precedence in our networked age.

The Dutch have the right intentions. But the way they're managing their open-source policy is not helping them most effectively reach the goals they seek.