Open Source Adoption Inevitable for Canada's Government?



May 01, 2009

This is a reprint of the article originally published in OSBR's May Issue under the title The Feds are Ready for a Change

"OSS is indeed the start of a fundamental change in the software infrastructure marketplace, but it is not a hype bubble that will burst and [the] UK government must take cognizance of that fact." Douglas Alexander

Canada is at the tipping point for acceptance of open source. Open source software (OSS) and culture has reached a critical mass in the business world and it is also being actively deployed within the Canadian government. While open source has contributed outstanding code, its impacts are even more profound, raising core values of participation, co-operation and standardization. However, like many large institutions, there has been reluctance by the Canadian federal government to modernize its official position regarding this approach to software development. There is still considerable investment in existing procurement practice and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are being invested in old information technology (IT) solutions.

Roger Burkhardt from Ingres (now summed it up well in a recent presentation to the US Embassy in Ottawa that was well attended by a wide range of Canadian federal departments. He described a perfect storm in which:

  • OSS has clearly matured and is ready for the enterprise
  • the economy requires departments to reduce costs quickly
  • demands for IT innovation are growing faster than ever

According to Burkhardt, the best practice of modern IT development now involves commercially supported OSS. This practice frees up government staff and empowers them to take full control of their software applications.

This article discusses the global momentum in federal government departments to support open source as well as some of the problems with the federal government's procurement process. However, despite the problems and relatively slow adoption of open source technology, there is movement for adoption. Federal government policies may be lagging behind other G7 governments, but OSS is being implemented across the civil service. There are also many people within government, at all levels, who understand the advantages of using open source.

Global Governments

It is worth noting that this move toward open source started before Obama was elected. The intelligence and diplomatic community have been using MediaWiki extensively. The CIA has been using Plone since 2007. The US Department of Defence has been has been promoting open source through Red Hat also has a long relationship of working closely with US federal government agencies to produce SELinux, a very secure version of GNU/Linux.

In February 2009, the UK changed its official open source policy. The Cabinet Office set a new mandate to consider open source procurement with all transactions. These policies stipulate that "open source and proprietary products are [to be] considered equally and systematically", and note that "learning from others is a key aspect of the CIO Council's operating principles". The guidelines also state that "general purpose software developed by or for government will be released on an open source basis".

If the UK government is officially engaging with the open source community, and "actively encourag[ing] projects", how can the Government of Canada not benefit from following the same path? All levels of government could significantly benefit from shared security audits, usability enhancements, scalability testing, and code enhancements.

Leadership by the Canadian government would allow provinces and municipalities to adopt open source technologies to help them save money and have more customized tools. The UK provides an example through their Open Source Academy which promotes open source to "local authorities through knowledge sharing and practical advice".

There are many more examples from Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Switzerland, Pakistan, Holland, and the other G7 countries. The EU has established an Open Source Observatory and Repository (See the OSBR article on European adoption) for European public administrations and has produced a GPL 2.0 equivalent license in the European Union Public License (EUPL). The global community is moving much more quickly on open source adoption than Canada's federal government policy makers.

Canadian Procurement Difficulties

The existing Canadian federal procurement vehicles fail to support open source. The focus is still on product based software in which a department buys a license. Since the cost of open source is derived from services and not products, OSS is more difficult for procurement officers to manage.

The only government website that lists open source and proprietary software choices is Public Work's Software Procurement Acquisition Resource Catalogue. Unfortunately, this document is outdated and most government employees start looking for software either with Google or existing vendors.

Policies tend to favour large bids from large vendors rather than from smaller shops specializing in open source products. Most government procurement policy is "led by the need to offset blame. The bigger the company involved, the better". While IBM supports Drupal and other open source tools, the company will tend to make a larger profit by selling the government a more expensive system that ensures lock-in.

When small companies are approached by departments, they are asked if they have an existing standing offer, which most do not have the resources to set up. Most open source shops are small and medium sized businesses and do not have the resources to compete head to head with the opportunities that come up through systems like MERX, Canada's electronic tendering service.

Federal procurement officers are not encouraged to consider open source solutions. With a wide range of staff preaching fear, uncertainty and doubt, there are many procurement officers who shy away from open source even when it does have a considerably smaller bottom line. It is safer and easier for most project managers to renew or extend a license with an existing vendor, rather than consider a mature open source alternative.

Movements Within Government

Recently, the federal government has been looking at revising its policies on open source. In January 2009, Public Works posted a Request for Information (RFI) on no charge licensed software. OpenConcept was one of many organizations and individuals which responded. Unfortunately, the RFI questions were too general, diluting the value of the evaluation. The request included this definition: "No Charge Licensed Software means Licensed Software that is available at no charge for the Licensed Software and is typically made available as a free download from the Internet". This broad definition could be interpreted to include non-OSS software such as abandonware, adware, crippleware, demoware, and postcardware, all of which dilute the value of open source.

The 2004 federal government position paper, Open Source Software Position (only now from has yet to be updated. This paper is geared more to IT architects rather than procurement officers and the range of software addressed is significantly limited. However, the paper does establish a precedent for including open source in procurement decisions. Legal and administrative systems will always be the last to change, but this is no longer uncharted territory.

It is encouraging to note that there are a number of internal advocates for open source within the federal government. OpenConcept works with Drupal, a popular open source content management platform, and has been approached by IT staff in several departments who are looking for support with this application. There are many people working in government who know that open source solutions fit their needs in that it is cost effective, secure, and can be deployed quickly.

Already Engaged

OpenConcept has been providing services for federal government departments over many years. Over this time, we have seen considerable progress in the use and understanding of open source. Any government department that deals with the scientific community has been actively using open source for years. Environment Canada's Weather department, Natural Resources Canada, National Resource Council Canada, and the Canadian Space Agency have been leading the way as their researchers have needed to use powerful, cost effective tools. More conservative departments, like the Canadian Revenue Agency, are using open source internally, although less extensively.

While the implications of a procurement policy that mandates open source are being discussed, OSS is quietly being deployed throughout the government. In 2009, OpenConcept surveyed Government of Canada web servers to determine where open source was being used. Nearly half the sites surveyed were using some form of OSS. With Gartner estimating that private sector adoption of open source is now at 85% and growing quickly, it is clear that the policy makers in Canada are trailing technology implementers in understanding the benefits and maturity of OSS. According to Slashdot editor Timothy Lord, "tax-paid software should be seen as a uniquely extensible part of the commonwealth, because whenever the government supports open source software, even through mere use, it adds value to the same software for everyone else". By adopting open source tools like Apache, MediaWiki, Drupal, and Firefox, the government is supporting other Canadians who are also using these tools.


Jeff Braybrook, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Canada, spoke in February about the Treasury Board's adoption of MediaWiki for GCPedia, the Government's internal proof of concept wiki for the exclusive use of government employees. He addressed the advantages and challenges to adopting open source in government. Government and open source communities are natural allies as they share common values. Both communities: i) encourage participation, and having a platform to perform, to contribute and to interact with others; ii) promote co-operation and collaboration which is critical for any successful federal government or open source project; and iii) depend upon and are improved by agreed upon standards that allow for innovation.

The adoption of OSS clearly ties into a sound economic policy to support small and medium businesses in Canada. Canada's Economic Action Plan has allocated 7.5 billion to support Canadian businesses and communities during the recession. Smart investments in open source technology produce jobs for Canadians while building a stronger information infrastructure for everyone. According to Red Hat's Javed Tapia, "the service-oriented model of open source has a positive fallout on the domestic economy through the generation of local employment, spurring of local investment and ensuring local technological upgradation". Using open source means that government funds go back into the pockets of citizens rather than add to a multi-national corporation's profit margins.


The hard work of many people inside and outside of the Canadian government to manifest a rational, economic and innovative technology practice is about to be realized. Despite obstacles, civil servants are implementing OSS solutions that meet real needs. It is prudent for government to invest in tools which can be re-used, shared and extended to maximize the impact of increasingly limited budgets. Open source provides a metaphor for a larger cultural shift in Canadian society which is pushing for greater transparency, accountability and involvement.

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.