The Australian Capital Territory has become the first Australian jurisdiction to mandate the consideration of open source software for government entities after a bill proposed by ACT Democrats leader Roslyn Dundas was passed into law this week.
Section 6A of the Government Procurement Guideline amendment bill regarding the procurement of computer software stated: “In the procurement of computer software, a Territory entity should, as far as practicable, prefer open source software.”
Furthermore, the bill advised avoiding “the procurement of software that does not comply with open standards and software for which support or maintenance is provided only by an entity that has the right to exercise exclusive control over its sale or distribution”.
The bill was later amended by independent member Helen Cross to substitute "consider" for “prefer”, and then passed by the Labour government.
"Open source legislation has gathered a lot of attention and this law sends an important message to state and federal governments across Australia,” Dundas says. “The broader ramifications relate to ‘what’s good for the ACT is good for Australia’, particularly since the legislation being supported by the ACT Liberals.”
Dundas says software fits in with the Democrats’ core principles of government accountability with spending.
“We’ve always promoted small business, and open source allows small businesses to compete and not give into proprietary software,” she says.
“There were concerns about how the bill would impact competition and the amendments address this. Open source businesses in the ACT want to be able to compete but open source just wasn’t on the agenda.”
Dundas says the legislation also sends a message to government departments as to how they develop software to communicate with the public.
“The ATO’s tax site doesn’t mesh with other software,” she says. “Being able to access information through the use of open standards is incredibly important.”
Adviser to Roslyn Dundas, Andrew Blake, says when the bill was presented at 9.30pm, the Labour government had initially tried to stall it, but it was eventually passed without dissent.
“The ACT has a significant public service and spent $A15 million this year on Microsoft licensing,” Blake says. “In the end it was a relatively good debate and the decision is in the best interest of Canberra’s local IT industry.”
This decision sets a precedent for other Australian governments with similar legislation waiting to be passed into law, including South Australia and the federal government.
“The ACT has lead the way with a lot of legislation as we have a unique system of government that is more progressive,” Blake told Computerworld Australia. “Once we have introduced a law here, other governments tend to follow.”
Blake conceded that the law won't have much effect in the short term.
“The law is not intended to force an immediate switch to, but to consider, open source and, as such, government departments will have to justify their software expenses,” he said. “A number of government departments in the ACT already use open source software primarily on back-end systems."
The definition of open standards was amended to include, “or standards recognised by the ISO”, which Blake said was favoured by local businesses over open source.
“We talked to a lot of local businesses who wanted to mandate the use of open standards-based software over open source but I don’t think our legislation was ever intended to dictate what software should be used,” he says.
Blake says the open source electronic voting system developed in Canberra by local businesses is a good example of how the technology can work well.