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Fixing government IT procurement - Part II

Dave Lane, Guest Post. 26 September 2018, 5:00 am
Fixing government IT procurement - Part II

Part II: A modest proposal

Having described a problem so pervasive in the status quo of government software procurement - which has led to a situation I have characterised, without hyperbole, as a hostage situation - I would like to offer a proposal for fixing this very precarious situation: a better procurement model for New Zealand government.

A quick win: mandate open standards compliance

We could stop digging ourselves an ever deeper hole of technical debt very quickly, with the stroke of a pen, in fact. 

Our government could mandate that all software procured by government in established software domains (as determined by a panel of private sector experts with diverse pecuniary interests, chosen, not by government, but by the private sector) must comply with relevant open standards (which, in turn, would need to be compliant with the definition I provided, to ensure they are not "fauxpen" standards - proprietary standards masquerading as open).

This would have the immediate effect of putting dominant suppliers pushing proprietary standards on notice, and provide certainty to all suppliers that if they invested in building software that is compliant with the relevant open standards, they would face far fewer non-technical barriers to entry into the government procurement market. It would also break the proprietary lock-in hostage situation we currently have.

Government procurement costs with specific suppliers are not generally available, so I can only guess here, but those savings could approach hundreds of millions of dollars - perhaps even a billion - per year. And all of this without any loss of capability. If incumbent suppliers are able to meet these criteria, and compete successfully on the level playing field this creates, there would not even be much drastic change in the short term.

The UK took this approach in 2014. Unfortunately, their commitment has flagged somewhat due to withering condemnation from incumbent (and very politically influential) proprietary suppliers, and massive pressure from their legions of lobbyists. I trust that the NZ government, with its reputation for ethical practice, would be far more robust in maintaining its commitment in the face of commercial pressures from almost exclusively overseas multinational corporations. This could be one of those opportunities for New Zealand government to display real global leadership and vision. 

Next steps

I recommend that representatives of a critical mass of regional authorities (from a diverse range of authorities of varying sizes, small to large) work with a panel of software experts (representing a diverse range of pecuniary interests, formally engaged by government) to catalogue the functional requirements for each system currently in use.

These requirements would be converted by a combined government and industry task force into a set of open standards, ideally building on international precedent, using - and contributing to - existing standards where-ever possible to achieve the greatest possible scale and to distribute the cost of maintaining these standards.

As each application area has applicable open standards defined, a Request for Proposals would be issued. This would stipulate that any solution which could meet an objective assessment of compliance with the open standards would be considered.

Fringe benefits

Of course, this standardisation creates other potential opportunities as well. Collectively purchasing solutions delivers economies of scale. In fact, beyond collective bargaining opportunities with single private sector suppliers, our government could do something even more interesting: seed a market place in which vendors could compete around a single open source software reference implementation of each open standard. This might well be necessary in some niche areas where the private sector does not see enough profit in the traditional proprietary software model. 

In this case, the government would commission an open source software supplier or even a community of developers, to create a compliant reference implementation and make it available under a suitable open source license, as stipulated by NZGOAL's Software Extension. This would then provide a working software solution which suppliers could be engaged to implement, support, maintain, and improve on a competitive basis, because any supplier would have equal access to the code to do so. In some cases, this might even be done by teams within government. 

An additional benefit of this approach, which I think few in government fully appreciate, but is codified in the D7 Charter in which New Zealand is a participant, is that it would make good on New Zealand's promise to open source its IT systems, not only for its own benefit, but also for that of the other six D7 participating nations.

In this way, New Zealand would gain access to high-value taxpayer funded software that could be rolled out across the country. But also, with interntional collaboration and standardisation, the support and maintenance costs would shared among multiple countries. It would also allow domestic IT suppliers, both small and large, to parley their successes support New Zealand government into exporting services to other government markets adopting that best-of-breed open source software pioneered right here.

Coda

To those concerned that a shift to open source software use in government would cost us, as a nation: we should always remember that the value of a software solution is not reflected by cost of developing that solution or the licenses fees the developer charges. These are pure costs. Software is a tool. The value of a software application should be measured in the value it brings to those who use it, not in the profit of those who wrote it.

Dave Lane is a dedicated technologist, a fan of strengthening our Commons, and an active participant in our democracy, because although things are generally grand here in New Zealand, he thinks things could be even better for all of us. Reposted from Dave's blog with kind permission.


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