August 22, 2006

Croatian government adopts open source software policy

Author: Koen Vervloesem

Last month the Croatian government adopted an open source software policy and issued guidelines for developing and using open source software in the government institutions. The Croatian government is concerned that proprietary software leads to too much dependence on the software suppliers. Open source software will make the government's work more transparent, according to the government's document, entitled "Open Source Software Policy."

The document includes the following guidelines:

  • Government institutions will choose and/or develop open source solutions as much as possible, instead of using closed source alternatives.
  • The government will support development of closed source solutions that use open standards for protocols and file formats, and which are developed in Croatia.
  • The government will support the use of open source programs and open standards outside of its institutions.
  • The government will support the use of open source solutions in educational institutions; both closed and open source solutions will be equally presented to students.

Domagoj Juricic, deputy state secretary at the Central State Administrative Office for e-Croatia and the leader of this project, explains what made the government publish the policy: "The use of information technology in government administration bodies is increasingly becoming important. So far, most of the software we use is proprietary software, so we cannot modify or complement it, or link software from different vendors. These software products impose rigid commercial conditions of use and limit our possibilities. In this way, government administration bodies may be led into a dependent position on the supplier of the software. This could lead to closed information systems, which make the success and efficiency of our eAdministration project more difficult.

"This is a policy document," Juricic emphasizes, "which means that the Croatian government has recognised the importance of market alternatives considering the platforms, tools, and other solutions that could help us build a qualitative e-society. As in other political or economic examples, our government should have an opinion on something that is rising on the market and that is interesting from the point of building a domestic ICT market. The Croatian government has never discriminated against any platform, but never before we have put that as a political statement, and that's what this policy is all about. This is our first public document that mentions the use of open source software, and it presents some kind of recommendation to our administrative bodies. The policy is not about replacing something, it is about treating things equally."

Inspired by the EU

The Croatian guidelines are inspired by activities of the European Union in the same spirit. The European Commission Action Plan 2000 had already established a set of goals for the development of a European information society. Stimulating the use of open source software in the public sector and the development of an electronic government administration were the two main goals. "The dependence on a supplier of proprietary software has been identified as one of the most significant obstacles for the new EU i2010 programme, entitled 'A European Information Society for growth and employment,'" Juricic says. "The same obstacle has been pointed out as the reason for slowing down market competition in the information and communications sector. Therefore, it has been established that open source software and open standards must be built into the EU information and communications market."

Croatia applied for membership of the European Union in 2003, and the European Council granted it candidate country status in 2004. This could be one of the reasons Croatia wants to follow the European guidelines for the information society. In late 2003, the government of Croatia adopted the eCroatia 2007 programme, in accordance with the EU recommendations. The main goals of the programme are to provide the citizens and firms of the country with timely information and to become a transparent and efficient service. "In order to achieve this task," Juricic says, "we have to use open standards and open source software that will enable interoperability of computer systems in different administration fields."

Interoperability, transparency, and money

"The state administration bodies create and exchange a lot of electronic documents," Juricic says. "There is a great danger that documents cannot be opened and presented in readable form after a certain time, because we don't have the licence anymore of the proprietary software, or the vendor can seize support of the old types of documents. Therefore we require the state administration bodies to use open standards for creating electronic documents."

One of the key factors in the reform of the Croatian government's administration is transparency. "The public has the right to have full insight into operations of state administration bodies, including the computer software. Proprietary software providing services to the citizens reduces the transparency of the government."

It's also about money, Juricic says. "Because of the dependence on a small number of proprietary software vendors, the competition on the domestic information and communications services market is reduced, while the administration bodies often do not have sufficient funds. Therefore, we will obligate principles of openness and freedom of use for the procurement of public information services. This will direct the administration bodies towards open source software and open standards. Open source software enables more rational distribution of state budget funds, because it creates the environment in which domestic suppliers and manufacturers may be more actively involved in any phase of the development, maintenance, and use of the systems. This will also reduce the total public expenses of providing services to the citizens, thereby managing the taxpayers' money economically."

These guidelines are in sharp contrast with the present situation. As a result of having no clearly established guidelines for procurement and use of software in state administration bodies, IT experts of the different bodies procure software which, in their opinion, is best suited to their requirements. This is often proprietary software, which makes modifying the software difficult, and often impossible. Mostly, the administration bodies keep using the same software because of existing business relations.

With the new guideline, the Croatian government will to the greatest possible extent avoid the use of software that makes connecting with other software or date exchange between different information systems impossible. In case this is not possible because of already operational proprietary software, Juricic says, "All subsequent upgrading and modifications have to be based on open source software and open standards."

Vlatko Kosturjak, president of the Croatian Linux User Group (Hrvatska Udruga Linux Korisnika), calls the guidelines "a pretty good start for a quicker adoption of open source software and open standards in Croatia. In the past, the government IT bodies have to take risks themselves if they want to use open source software. With the open source software policy, even the more conservative IT departments will feel safe now implementing open source software."

If the Croatian government develops its own software, it will to the greatest possible extent create software based on open standards. It will also promote development of open source software and the development of proprietary software based on open standards. It will promote the use of open source software and open standards outside the state administration bodies: in the public sector, the economy, and public services. And it will promote translation into Croatian of open source software.

The Croatian government will also promote the development of course materials to educate civil servants in the area of open source software and open standards. It will promote integrating the knowledge of open source software into educational programmes. Open source and proprietary software will be presented equally in order to prepare the younger generations for independent decision-making.

The future

It's still unclear what the practical consequences of the policy will be. "There are still many questions to be answered," Juricic admits. "We will see what this policy will bring to us in real life. For the moment, it is important to declare that we're really open for all solutions which are secure, interoperable, and cost-effective. Our next step will be forming a list of ICT standards to use."

Kosturjak warns against euphoria with the policy. "Although the Croatian open source community is very positive about the open source software policy, we'll see how serious the Croatian government is when the next step comes: the implementation of the policy. This will not be easy, as there are obvious practical problems. For example, most of the government bodies have now proprietary technologies together with proprietary file formats implemented in their IT systems. Migration to open standards and open source software can be technically difficult and painful. From the non-technical point of view, this is also a political and financial issue. We (the open source advocates) hope that the Croatian government will have the strength to actually implement the open source policy. Until that moment, the policy is just like an unsent letter."