Do public administrations distort the market through the release of Free Software? An article by Prof. Dr. Simon Schlauri about the legal and economic arguments resulting from this question and originally written for our Public Money? Public Code - policy brochure.
Free Software is a perfect fit for the public sector. It is a public resource that government organisations can use, study, improve, and share with each other. For citizens, this means transparency, cost efficiency, and the freedom to interact with their government in the way that suits them best.
But not all government institutions are taking advantage of Free Software. In consequence, public funds are being wasted, and programs that should be free are being locked away. This also makes life hard for the Free Software-based companies who employ people in Europe, and pay their taxes here.
FSFE explains the problem
Procurement is a field for specialists. Many procurement officials are still not fully aware of Free Software. Combined with inertia in public sector IT departments, this means that too many public bodies never look beyond their long-standing relations with suppliers of non-free software.
At FSFE, we work with journalists and researchers to highlight the work of public sector organisations that are doing it right. When a public body makes mistakes, we help them to correct them. And when necessary, we put pressure on organisations that insist on harmful ways of purchasing software.
Why procurement matters
Public procurement spending equals nearly 20% of the EU's GDP 1. The public sector's procurement choices have very real effects on the economy, and play a significant role in determining the sort of firms that thrive in the market. Even with current procurement practices, Free Software already delivers very significant benefits for the European economy. Daffara (2012) estimates that Europeans enjoy 114 billion EUR per year in direct cost savings thanks to Free Software2.Anecdotal evidence points in the same direction. Many public adminstrations that begin using Free Software see their IT costs drop by 50-90%.
The public sector's buying decisions also has a significant influence on the development of a healthy supplier ecosystem for Free Software products and services. With more government institutions as their customers, many such companies could thrive more quickly, and there would be more and better Free Software programs available to the public.
FSFE speaks up when things go wrong...
In 2010, the European Commission made a glaring mistake. The Commission had issued numerous policy statements in favour of Free Software and Open Standards. But when it came to buying software and services for itself, it went straight to Microsoft and its resellers. Companies offering Free Software never had a chance, even though their products offered the same functionality.
We saw that the Commission had certainly breached the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. So we took them to task, generating lots of press coverage - right up to the New York Times.
We want the European Commission to procure the software products it needs in an open, competitive fashion, giving Free Software suppliers the same opportunities as it gives to proprietary vendors and their resellers.
We want the EC to take a long-term view of its IT strategy, realise the dangers of lock-in, and figure future exit costs into the price of any solution it acquires.
This is what the Commission owes to Europe's citizens. Sticking to the letter and spirit of European procurement law would be an excellent start.
…and offers independent solutions
Fortunately, most people are more open to progress than that. We help procurement officials understand the full impact of their actions, and we help them to do better -- not only for their organisations, but also for the citizens whom they serve.
At FSFE, we are in constant dialogues with procurement specialists across Europe. We observe new approaches, identify what works, and provide analysis to decision makers. We help specialists in different countries learn from each other.
To speed up change at the ground level, we also work with national governments to help them draft policies that promote Free Software adoption. In January 2014, Italy introduced a rule requiring public bodies to first evaluate Free Software before buying non-free solutions. FSFE's General Counsel Carlo Piana was part of the expert committee installed by the government to design this rule, alongside participants from all sectors of the software market.
This is the sort of change that FSFE helps to create. Please support us in this effort.