A requirement that a component of a government IT tender be open-source has sparked debate on whether such a specification is appropriate.
The State Services Commission, in a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a redevelopment of its website at www.ssc.govt.nz, stipulates that the content management system (CMS) should be open source.
This restriction was immediately questioned, both in a public online forum and, apparently, by a would-be respondent supplier. A carefully-worded amplification was appended to the RFP document on the government procurement site GETS within a day of the issue of the RFP itself.
In the appendix describing the required CMS, the RFP document says: “We are looking for an Open Source solution. By Open Source we mean:
Produce standards-compliant output;
l Be documented and maintainable into the future by suitable developers;
l Be vendor-independent, able to be migrated if needed;
l Contain full source code. The right to review and modify this as needed shall be available to the SSC and its appointed contractors.”
SSC spokesman Jason Ryan says there is nothing particularly unusual about restricting a requirement in this way. An open source solution, he said earlier this week, would make it easier to apply the same solution to other government agencies.
An addendum explaining the point was about to go up on GETS, he told Computerworld “and I’d rather you wait and read the wording of that than that I try to rephrase it in my own words.”
The explanatory addendum says:
“The Commission has stated that an open source CMS is a requirement with a view to saving the government money and avoiding unnecessary reliance on a single supplier of a proprietary product. Its decision to do so is consistent with the Mandatory Rules for Procurement by Departments and the Auditor-General's Procurement Guidance for Public Entities.
“The former states that ‘[d]epartments must make procurement decisions on the basis of value for money of goods and services to be supplied, and not on the basis of their place of origin or the degree of foreign ownership or affiliation of the supplier’.
Similarly, the Auditor-General's guidance states that ‘[p]ublic entities should use resources effectively, economically, and without waste, with due regard for the total costs and benefits of an arrangement, and its contribution to the outcomes the entity is trying to achieve.’
“In the Commission's view, there is nothing in either the Mandatory Rules or the Auditor-General's guidance that precludes specifying an open source CMS as a requirement. To the contrary, where appropriate, doing so may secure the best value for money. There are many open source solutions that are likely to meet the Commission's requirements and enable it to share components with other agencies who wish to leverage the Commission's investment without licensing impediments.”
To forestall further queries along the lines of a Twitter commentator who asks about “technological neutrality”, the note points out that the SSC “has been mindful of paragraphs 16 and 19-21 of the Mandatory Rules. It considers that its requirement for an open source CMS is not contrary to either the letter or spirit of those paragraphs. None of those paragraphs prevents the Commission from opting for an open source as opposed to proprietary licensing model.”
Paragraph 16 of the Mandatory Rules, under the heading “non-discrimination”, says: “Departments must accord all potential suppliers equal opportunity and equitable treatment on the basis of their financial, technical and commercial capacity.”
Paragraph 19, under “technical specifications”, says: “Departments must not prepare, adopt or apply any technical specification with the purpose or effect of creating unnecessary obstacles to international trade or domestic supply.” Succeeding paragraphs rule out citing a “particular trademark or trade name, patent, design or type, specific origin or producer or supplier” in procurement documents unless there is no other precise way of describing the requirements. In the latter case, it recommends adding the phrase “or equivalent”.
Despite the SSC’s explanations, misgivings continue to be expressed this week.
A prospective bidder on the SSC’s request for proposal (RFP) suggests that one reason given for the preference — open source will ease take-up of similar solutions by other public-sector agencies — conflicts with government guidelines on assignment of intellectual property rights in software created for public-sector contracts
These guidelines say they will “promote economic development by favouring ownership of new IPR being vested in the commercial sector, provided certain principles (such as national security) will not be compromised”.
“If ICT IP is generally best managed by the commercial sector,” asks the anonymous prospective bidder in a comment attached to the Request for Proposal on the government’s GETS procurement “how does this relate to the SSC redistributing code?”
The policy statement is a general one, says project manager Anna Chambers in a reply on GETS. “SSC has in the past redistributed code under a range of open source licenses, and reserves the right to continue to do so into the future.”
In reply to another query, she notes that the current RFP is not intended as an all-of-government request or an indicator of all-of-government policy on CMSs; it is aimed solely at meeting the SSC’s current requirements.