Government Software Innovation



May 17, 2007

Being based in Ottawa, it is hard to ignore the opportunities available in providing services to the government. With federal, provincial & municipal governments all with offices in the city there is a huge opportunity for innovation and cooperation between different departments. Most Canadians don't realize this, but our country's largest single software producer is our public service sector and yet the experience, tools and intellectual property developed by government workers is rarely shared with other divisions let alone with the citizens who paid for its development.

I have received a number of phone calls from government employees who are interested using Drupal for developing flexible solutions to meet the needs of their departments. Rather than developing a large application from scratch to meet a department's communication's needs, specific modules can be developed to extend the core functionality. Customizable applications can be developed to meet a specific department's individual needs and do not necessarily need to fit within an organization wide application. For most needs, innovation can take place at a module level within Drupal -- there should be a common open source base for software development within the GoC.

Drupal is by no means the only open source tool out there, but it is very scalable and is being used in-house by large companies like Yahoo & IBM. There is a large community of users & developers that are rapidly developing tools to enhance translation, single sign-ons and file management needs. There are certainly highly developed wiki & project management environments which could be integrated into Drupal, and there are now several highly developed highly developed open source tools for all kinds of online applications.

Although we do have a couple of government clients, it is difficult for a small company to get into the government market. Not all open source developers are small, certainly Red Hat, Novell & IBM provide enterprise level services using open source software. Getting registered for standing offers takes a lot of time as does watching the Request for Proposals (RFP's) on MERX. Finding the contract possibilities on MERX isn't a problem as the expensive part is in preparing a proposal where you don't have any sense of the chance of success.

Governments are also more likely to buy products rather than services, and modern software development is based on buying services rather than something that you can pull off the shelf. OpenConcept has been listed as a supplier through the Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) Software Information Portal for a number of years. When there are government services provided to identify possibly options is not clear how many people search for software vendors here.

There is no way for a FLOSS company to respond to an RFP for "software licenses" that doesn't include follow-on services given there is no money in licensing, only money in the services. Unfortunately these two elements are often separated in government RFP's.

A more streamlined process for government departments to find small Canadian companies that can offer lower-cost value-add services built on open source software would help FLOSS adoption in Canada. Having the Government of Canada adopt open source software and software development will taxpayers considerably.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.