Recent scandal between the Ministry of the Government Administration on one hand and non-government organizations and IT experts on the other brought out many questions. The decision of the Ministry to use and pay more than 51 million to Microsoft was questioned. The critics of this idea indicated that the decision to purchase licenses is not justified since it is possible to use free software like Open source by the State administration and thus save millions of leva.
The arguments of the Ministry were that the contract is already signed and there is nothing that could be done. The good thing is that it was understood that no further obligations would be undertaken and that the Ministry would be thinking about the use of open code if in the subsequent years it is proven that it is possible within the structure of the government administration. The opponents of the open source claim that its use will put the administration under greater risk and that such reform could not be done with such a large number of structures and people involved. However, it seams that this is not true. In a number of countries around the world separate agencies, ministries and municipalities are using open source operating systems and software.
According to the Open book for free software in Germany the Parliament took a decision to migrate towards operating system with open code at the beginning of 2002 because it would like to remain independent from single supplier and the subsequent lack of transparency, security and compatibility. The German armed forces forbade the use of Microsoft products in its structures due to actual and suspicion about possible problems with security. When Mexico announced that a migration of the education system is being planned to Linux, from Microsoft reacted immediately with a lot of free software, several free computers, a little bit of free technical support and a bit of entertainment for the representative of the Mexican authorities. The migration towards Linux was delayed, but not for long.
In France the government agency ATICA supports the use of open software in the French public sector. In a special report to the French Prime Minister the agency provided an action plan, requirements for open standards and one of the six priorities is the use of open software in the public administration. Denmark installed in its education system StarOffice, and in addition the program was installed in the homes of the students. In Spain the Senate, The Council for Nuclear Security, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice use server applications with open code. These examples, however, are only about separate public structures. Next year, for the first time, the entire administration of a European country will be using open code software. From 1st of January 2008 the Danish public administration and offices will be required to use open standards for software. This is a result of lengthy negotiations and an agreement between the Danish central government, local municipalities and the Association of the Danish regions. Thus, Denmark will become the first country to introduce mandatory use of open standards on a national, regional and local level. The use of open standards is expected to increase competition on the software market, since the merchant would not be able to protect their market position (as it is in Bulgaria at present). The increased competition will reduce the prices of the products and services. This is a small part of the expected positive results.
The open standards allow interactions between different systems, solutions and organizations. In other words, each administration could use different software according to the specification of its activities and the possibility to negotiate lower prices with the various producers. This will save enormous amounts of money and time and is a very effective way to improve the compatibility of the public administration on the level of communications and exchange of data. This by itself has a result - improvement of the effectiveness of the public sector and guarantees a continuous flow of information from one system into another.
Not least, in this way the people and the companies will have easier communications with the administration at lower costs.
During the discussion, surprisingly the Minister shared two arguments against, which do not sound logical. He said that it is possible that the people working in the administration may not like software with open code and for that reason not to use it. However, since our money is spend, which could be saved, this could not be a reason. Baring in mind the enormous positive effects from better communications within the administration, we will say that the software is not very different from the one used at present (quite the opposite), nor such an argument could justify spending budget funds. To avoid negative attitudes it will be necessary to train the administration, but this is relatively small initial cost, which will be compensated many times over from positive effects and this is an opportunity for the government employees to improve their computer literacy. Very often the training takes couple of days and the users get accustomed to the new software within a month.
The other argument of the Minister was that he did not know about such software and for that reason he had not questioned the contract with Microsoft. Yes, it is probably not the job of a minister to know, but he must have experts, which must search for the best solution. As it is known - the lack of knowledge is not an excuse. Particularly for a Ministry..
* Short version of the article was published for the first time in the newspaper "Pari" on 12th December 2007.