On 17 February I participated in a panel discussion about opportunities, hurdles with and incentives for Free Software in the public administration. The panel was part of the event "digital state online", focusing on topics like digital administration, digital society and digital sovereignty. Patron of the event is the German Federal Chancellor's Office. Here a quick summary of the points I made and some quick thoughts about the discussion.

The "Behördenspiegel" meanwhile published the recordings of the discussion moderated by Benjamin Stiebel (Editor, Behörden Spiegel) with Dr. Hartmut Schubert (State Secretary, Thuringian Ministry of Finance), Reiner Bamberger (developer at Higher Administrative Court of Rhineland-Palatinate), Dr. Matthias Stürmer (University of Bern), and myself (as always you can use youtube-dl).

We were asked to make a short 2 minutes statement at the beginning in which I focused on three theses:

  • The public administration actions are more intransparent than it used to be due to digitalization. We need to balance this.
  • The sharing and re-use of software in public administrations together with small and medium-sized enterprises must be better promoted.
  • Free Software (also called Open Source) in administration is important in order to maintain control over state action and Free Software is an important building block of a technical distribution of powers in a democracy in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the "Public Money? Public Code!" video was played:

In the discussion, we also talked about why there is not yet more Free Software in public administrations yet. State Secretary Dr. Schubert point was he is not aware about legal barriers and that the main problem is in the implementation phase (as it is the case for policies most of the time). I still mentioned few hurdles here:

  • Buying licences is still sometimes easier than buying services and some public administrations have budgets for licences which cannot be converted to buy services. This should be more flexible; and it was good to hear from State Secretary Dr. Schubert that they changed this in Thuringia.
  • Some proprietary vendors can simply be procured from framework contracts. For Free Software that option is often missing. It could be helpful if other governments follow the example of France and provide a framework contract which makes it easy to procure Free Software solutions - including from smaller and medium-sized companies.

One aspect I noticed in the discussion and the questions we received in the chat: Sometimes Free Software is presented in a way that in order to use it, public administration would have to look at code repositories and click through online forums in order to find out specifics of the software. Of course, they could do that, but they could - as they do for proprietary software as well and as it is the more common if you do not have in-house contributors - simply write in an invitation to tender that a solution must for example be data-protection compliant, that you want the rights to use, study, share, and improve the software for every purpose. So as public administration you not have to do such research yourself, as you would have to do for your private hobby project, but you can - and depending on the level of in-house expertise often really should - involve external professional support to implement a Free Software solution. This can be support from other public administrations or from companies providing Free Software solutions (on purpose I am not writing "Free Software companies" here, for further details see the previous article "There is no Free Software company - But!").

We also still need more statements by government officials, politicians, and other decisions makers why Free Software is important. Like in the recent months in Germany the conservative CDU's party convention resolution on the use of Free Software or the statement by the German Chancellor Merkel about Free Software below. This is important so that people in the public administration who want to move to more Free Software can better justify and defend their actions. In order to increase the speed for more digital sovereignty, decision makers need to reverse the situation. It should not be "nobody gets fired for buying Microsoft" to "nobody gets fired for procuring Free Software".

I also plead for a different error culture in the public administration. Experimentation clauses would allow to be test innovative approaches without every bad feedback immediately suggesting that a project has to be stopped. We should think about how to incentivize the sharing and reuse of Free Software. For example if public administrations document good solutions and support others in benefiting from those solutions as well could they get a budget bonus for that for future projects? Could we provide smaller budgets which can be more flexible used to experiment with Free Software, e.g. by providing small payments to Free Software offers even if they do not yet meet all the criteria to use it productively for the tasks envisioned.

One point we also briefly talked about was centralization vs decentralization. We have to be careful that "IT consolidation" efforts do not lead to a situation of more monopolies and more centralization of powers. For Germany, I argued that the bundling of IT services and expertise in some authorities should not go that far that federal states like Thuringia or other levels and parts of government lose their sovereignty and are dependent on a service centre controlled by the federal government or another part of the state. Free Software provides the advantage that for example the federal state of Bavaria can offer a software solution for other federal states. But if they abuse their power over this technology, other federal states like Thuringa could decide to host the Free Software solution themselves, and contract a company to make modifications, so they can have it their way. The same applies for other mechanisms for distribution of power like the separation between a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. All of them have to make sure their sovereignty is not impacted by technology - neither by companies (as more often discussed) nor by other branches of government. For a democracy in the 21st century such a technological distribution of power is crucial.

PS: In case you read German, Heise published an article titled "The public administration's dependency on Microsoft & Co is 'gigantic'" (in German) about several of the points from the discussion. And if you do not know it yet, have a look at the expert brochure to modernise public digital infrastructure with public code, currently available in English, German, Czech, and Brazilian Portuguese.