Open Source in the Canadian Government
Following a growing trend among national governments, the Government of Canada has updated its Directive on Management of Information Technology to reflect its commitment to using open source technologies by default across all federal departments.
At present, technologies used to support the application architecture of federal digital properties are a mixture of open source and proprietary solutions. According to the modified directive, open standards and open source solutions will be considered above proprietary alternatives for all future government IT projects.
The implications of this shift are far-reaching: digital governance will soon be based entirely on open source technology, and all source code will be released to the public under an open-source software license.
While many national governments established themselves as innovators in adopting open source technology, particularly the Dutch government (they wrote their preference for open source into law back in 2008), the Canadian government was slower to fully commit to open source standards.
The Canadian government joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an organization that promotes e-government, open data, and public participation, in 2011. According to the OGP website, “the use of open-source software enables citizens to understand how that data is being used by parliament and to create adaptations to the software so that they can view it in the way they find most beneficial.” For advocates of open source adoption in the public sector, joining the OGP was an encouraging move. However, Canada’s commitment to open source remained far from certain.
In 2013, the Canadian government decided to consolidate 1500 separate government websites onto a single platform to streamline the user experience and enhance citizen engagement. It was an ambitious project with a noble goal. While agencies such as OPIN were consulted to propose open source solutions in the early stages of the project, the deal was ultimately awarded to a major IT provider offering a proprietary solution, with an initial price tag of $1.54 million.
Like so many government projects outsourced to large firms that came before it (the Healthcare.gov debacle in the United States is one notable example), the cost continued to climb as the new Canada.ca website faced setbacks. The website ended up more than ten times over budget. This does not reflect the total cost, however. As individual departments had to budget millions for the switch independently (at least an additional $19.79 million), the full cost of the project remains unclear.
The result was intense public scrutiny and a reinvigorated effort among Canada’s tech community to establish a commitment to open source technology in government. In 2017, the Canadian government responded to these efforts by committing to a set of “open digital principles” to be followed in future IT projects.
In early December 2018, the government’s commitment to open source was formalized by its inclusion in its policy directive for the management of information technology.
Open source solutions are almost always less expensive than proprietary solutions. Let’s take a moment and think about why this is the case.
The Government of Canada currently pays millions annually in licensing costs for the use of proprietary technologies (let me clarify: not the technology itself, but merely the right to use it). Open-source software does not come with licensing fees because it is the result of the voluntary contributions of thousands of individuals worldwide.
More expensive technology is not necessarily a superior technology. What’s important to consider is the process behind the technology, and how that drives costs down. Open source solutions are cheaper because the core of the technology is produced, quality-assured, and updated by a worldwide community of developers, for free. Furthermore, as laid out in the new policy directive’s section on maximizing reuse, open-source technologies can be reused and leveraged for different purposes at no significant added cost.
On the other hand, the development of proprietary technologies, from the ground up, is a cost incurred by the company that owns the technology. Internal development costs are subsequently passed on to buyers in the form of a higher price tag. The parent company, as the only company with the expertise to maintain the software, will also charge top dollar for support and further development. This dependency, coupled with licensing fees, creates a costly lock-in situation that drives costs up exponentially.
With the newly updated policy directive, the government will no longer have to pay for the right to use technologies it has purchased. The government will instead rely on agencies like OPIN that specialize in open source development to tailor these technologies to their needs, at a greatly reduced cost. It is clear that by adopting open source as the new standard for technology procurement in government, millions of dollars will be saved annually that can be better allocated elsewhere.
The economic opportunities generated by the government’s reaffirmed commitment to open source will be remarkable. The market will open up for different IT providers, generally smaller sized agencies, to support government IT projects on open source platforms. Not only are these agencies competing with one another to offer the best digital services to government clients, but they are all actively contributing to open source projects shared by millions worldwide, driving the entire industry forward.
For example, OPIN has made several contributions to the open-source Drupal content management system in the form of contributed modules developed for different client work. These contributions can be leveraged in future projects indefinitely.
By encouraging competition and contributions to open source communities with a stronger profit motive, significant technological innovations will occur as a result.
The key idea behind open source technology is that knowledge is distributed, and no proprietary technology can match the quality of an open-source system built on the combined knowledge and contributions of thousands of individuals achieving their unique aims. Open source is innovative by nature and is in a state of constant improvement. In the Drupal community, for instance, new contributed modules are added constantly, and the most popular modules are updated regularly for quality and security enhancements.
By updating the policy directive to make open source adoption the default, the Canadian government has grown its IT support team by thousands in an instant, for free. The government can leverage this endlessly growing pool of resources until its commitment to open source wanes (let’s hope it remains).
A More Democratic Process
There is a strong philosophical case for the adoption of open-source technology that should be addressed alongside more practical concerns. The updated directive mandates that all source code for government digital properties be released and made available and accessible to the public under an open-source software license. The aim, according to the federal government, is “to generate economic opportunities and increase trust and engagement in government activities.”
Furthermore, with non-proprietary technologies, governments are free to switch IT providers, while retaining ownership of their digital properties. The alternative is to keep governments in expensive lock-in situations with major proprietary IT companies that restrict the freedom of federal departments to select IT providers.
Now that the Canadian government has officially established its commitment to open source, it is imperative to consider which open source technology is optimal for the public sector.
Drupal is a content management system that is used by governments and government agencies worldwide (including several Canadian government departments) to support their digital ambitions. Renowned for its robust functionality and scalability, Drupal is a clear choice for public sector organizations whose needs are complex and varied.
OPIN is a digital agency based in Ottawa that specializes in Drupal solutions for governments and enterprises. OPIN’s expertise in Drupal for the public sector is unsurpassed: OPIN has successfully deployed several Drupal solutions for federal departments in Canada, including Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission, Industry Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada.