India Adopts A Comprehensive Open Source Policy

The Government of India (GOI) has adopted a comprehensive and supportive open source policy. It builds on their earlier efforts to adopt open standards for procurement. As we've seen in other regions, the adoption of such policies often brings out concerns from some quarters who want to spread 'fear and doubt' about the policy. So, what are the facts about the policy, and how does it fit into India's broader economic development strategy?

From 'purchaser' to 'innovator'

In my work with governments around the world, I've observed that many governments are increasing their engagement on open source to help them promote a culture of innovation that they need in order to serve their citizens today and in the years to come.

While government procurement regimes often lag behind those in the commercial sector in terms of adaptability and efficiency, I see a a growing awareness among not only the IT experts but also the leadership of the public sector that the old way of acquiring software has to change and that lock-in is no longer acceptable. The use of technology, including open source software, is moving out of the sphere of simply 'acquiring a product' to 'investing in innovation'.

As a result, the emphasis on open source by the GOI is a reflection of this change of focus. IT is less about acquiring intellectual property via a license, and more about widely distributing the tools and adding value on top of it. This paradigm shift has enabled decision-makers to go from thinking of small 'procurement' windows to viewing open source from a broader vantage point that highlights its broad-based benefits to an economy, jobs, and innovation, and in the government itself.

In India, the policy coincides with another broad initiative, Digital India. By bringing together various functions and efforts, the program seeks to prepare India for a knowledge future. It is centered on three key areas:

  • Digital Infrastructure as a Utility to Every Citizen
  • Governance & Services on Demand
  • Digital Empowerment of Citizens

Citizen engagement

Those objectives are consistent with one of the other exciting trends I’m seeing: governments using open source software, as a key component of 'digital agenda' initiatives that include open standards and open data policies, to enhance civic engagement.

Whether through sponsoring 'app challenges' or 'hackathons' to generate excitement around new ways of using government services and information, to modernizing online web-based services, and governments actually 'open sourcing' the software, there is strong evidence that open source is indeed driving transparency and better engagement with citizens.

One example is the work of the US White House to connect citizens (and citizen developers) to government (and government data). The US "digital agenda" is carrying out the President’s goal of using technology to make a real difference in individuals’ daily lives. Notably, in carrying out its effort, the White House is committed to "using and contributing back to open source software as a way of making it easier for the government to share data, improve tools and services, and return value to taxpayers."

The GOI policy

In many ways, the GOI policy is consistent with these trends we see around the world. With this background, what's the new policy all about? The thrust of the policy requires that the various ministries of the GOI "shall endeavor to adopt Open Source Software [OSS] in all e-Governance systems implemented by various Government organizations, as a preferred option in comparison to Closed Source Software (CSS)."

To effectuate the policy, "All Government Organizations, while implementing e-Governance applications and systems must include a specific requirement in Request for Proposal (RFP) for all suppliers to consider OSS along with CSS while responding. Suppliers shall provide justification for exclusion of OSS in their response, as the case may be. Government Organizations shall ensure compliance with this requirement and decide by comparing both OSS and CSS options with respect to capability, strategic control, scalability, security, life-time costs and support requirements."

Reportedly, the draft of the policy was sent to 82 government departments, and inputs were received from 65 departments. Most departments were reported to be very supportive of the policy, with none opposed the policy.

More than 40 governments world-wide, by my conservative count, have policies that create a positive environment for open source use. These policies are important to level the playing field, not merely highlighting the benefits of open source to governments (saying it’s ok to use it) but also providing meaningful answers to commonly asked questions by government IT professionals. The French government, for example, published a guideline in late 2012 urging the country's public administrations to not only make a thorough and systematic review of free alternatives when building and revising IT infrastructure and applications, but also to use the savings realized by the use of open source to develop expertise and engage upstream communities.

The GOI approach is also consistent with the direction of the US Government. Just last year, the White House (via the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal CIO) issued a Digital Services Playbookdescribed in some quarters as "something of a marvel for an official government policy: it's elegantly designed, has clear navigation, and is responsive to any device you choose to view it upon."

At its core, the Playbook is about more agile use of reusable software and processes that focus on the customer. Central to that approach is its emphasis on open source. The final 'play' in the Playbook captures the notion of 'Default to Open'. Play 8 encourages agencies to 'Choose a Modern Technology Stack' which focuses on use of open source, cloud-based, and commodity solutions across the technology stack, "as these solutions have seen widespread adoption and support by the most successful private-sector consumer and enterprise software technology companies." It clearly states, "Consider open source software solutions at all layers of the stack."

Open source will continue to be the 'go to' approach for governments around the world, and the steps that the GOI have taken are consistent with that trend. The policy reflects a potent driver toward open source software utilization: the fundamental shift in IT architecture, away from coupled hardware, software, and data to more modularity, reuse, and a central focus on interoperability—all of which is enhanced by tighter government IT budgets and the goal of avoiding vendor lock-in.

The counter arguments

The GOI policy has received criticism, directly from some companies as well as from organizations representing some segments of the IT industry.

Having observed attacks on open source policies for much of the last decade, these are different in style and tone. Remarkably, there is little dispute about the policy itself. Rather, the central thrust of the attack is on the 'how to' of implementation.

Instead, as one of the organizations stated in its letter to the GOI, the "policy on this issue should emphasize open standards, interoperability and other key factors that create a level playing field for vendors of all types."

Creating level playing field is precisely what the GOI policy is striving to achieve. And there is no doubt that use of open standards and ensuring interoperability are important. But they are not sufficient.

The challenge is changing a culture and approach that provides the GOI with options. As Ram Sewak Sharma, the Secretary of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (Deity) indicated in a media review, "the objective of the policy was to ensure both the options [of closed and open source] are compared and the best possible solution adopted. The objective of the policy is not to narrow down the opportunities for closed source software companies, but to ensure that both CSS and OSS options are properly evaluated."

Moreover, claims that the GOI policy 'mandates' OSS are also misplaced. Secretary Sharma went on to say: "It is clarified that the policy does not make it mandatory for all future applications and services to be designed using the open source software (OSS). The compliance part of the policy clearly states that the solution suppliers should consider OSS along with closed-source software (CSS) while proposing solutions. They can always propose CSS solutions, provided they can justify it over OSS. While the government organisations shall ensure compliance with this requirement and decide by comparing both OSS and CSS options with respect to capability, strategic control, scalability, security, life-time costs and support requirements."

The GOI is to be commended by taking this initiative. It is essential that the GOI and the open source community, working with all vendors who support OSS, come together to raise awareness and ensure meaningful implementation of the policy.