Charities’ Microsoft decision riles open source group

Decision to use Microsoft's software was never put to tender

The president of the New Zealand Open Source Society has questioned the process used to select Microsoft software as the platform for New Zealand’s new online charities registration system.

Open source society president Peter Harrison says government procurement rules require any project with a value above a certain threshold go to tender. The threshold is $100,000 for goods and general services.

Late last year, the Charities Commission, established to develop a formal register of charitable organisations, went to tender for service providers to implement a Microsoft-based online registration system. However, the decision to use Microsoft’s software was never put to tender.

The total value of the Charities Commission project is not yet certain but is likely to be $600,000 to $700,000, according to commission chief executive Trevor Garrett. This includes both internal and contract costs.

However, Garrett says, the software component of the project is a very small part of the total and is well under the threshold as it can be bought through an all-of-government deal.

Garrett says an independent consultant, recommended by the State Services Commission, was used to evaluate the development options. These included further development of a legacy system or a new approach.

The consultant recommended off-the-shelf software, with as little customisation as possible, be used to develop the registration system. He further recommended Microsoft’s SharePoint Server and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. At this point, Garrett says, the possibility of open source was raised. The consultant considered it and stuck by his original recommendation.

“He took the view that what he was proposing was a better option,” Garrett says. “He was also looking at support for the various requirements we have.”

However, Harrison says it is pointless determining a software vendor before going to tender.

“Even with tenders we often see requirements that specify Microsoft products in the RFI documents, which discourage or even eliminate open source options before they get to the RFI stage,” he says.

Government procurement guidelines apply strictly to all departments. Other agencies, such as the Charities Commission, are encouraged to follow the rules. The guidelines state procurement “below the value thresholds or not covered by the rules is still expected to be conducted in accordance with the principles of the government procurement policy and the good practice guidelines issued by the Office of the Auditor-General.”

Harrison says taking registrations for charities would be equally easy in either Microsoft or open source technologies.

“In fact, Apache has a better than 60% market share in web servers, so it seems unusual that the recommendation of a consultant would eliminate a majority market player from the project,” Harrison says.

He says the difficulty with open source is there is often no recognisable vendor.

“For example, there is nobody pushing PostgreSQL as a database solution, although I personally implemented it in a public company, and it has been the core of their system for the last three years,” he says.

“Yet, if you put a tender out for a database you probably won’t have a single vendor talking about Postgres, rather you will have Oracle and Microsoft pushing their products, which cost tens of thousands of dollars.”

Harrison says that until there are procedural changes requiring open source software be evaluated there is little chance systems such as PostgreSQL will be adopted in government “despite it being free, robust and well-supported.”

Last week Computerworld reported the Electoral Enrolment Centre had adopted PostgreSQL, to integrate electoral roles across the country. That work was won by Catalyst IT, which presented PostgreSQL as part of a larger solution.

Registration with the Charities Commission begins in February, with up to 40,000 organisations expected to register by June 2008.

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Tags open sourceMicrosoftpostgresqlcharities commission

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