Why AGIMO’s open source policy will change nothing


opinion I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the irony of it all this afternoon when I read Gary Gray’s pompous pronouncement that from now on, Federal Government agencies must consider the adoption of open source software in any technology purchase that they make.

Does anyone, I thought to myself, take this kind of thing seriously?

On the face of it, the policy sounds sensible enough, representing what many have long considered to be a rational idea; that is, if a government department or agency needs to procure software, it should look around to see whether there are free and flexible alternatives available first, before it jumps into bed with a proprietary software vendor like Microsoft or Oracle — with all the cost and, often, technical rigidity that implies.

The faster moving private sector has recognised this principle for decades now. Long before vendors like Red Hat came along to provide supported versions of Linux, system administrators around the world were covertly running their print and file servers on early versions of Slackware and Debian — and in many cases, their managers didn’t even know.

Perhaps the only reason that Governments have remained so focused on proprietary software for so long is the furphy that open source software is unsupported. When you’re accountable to the Minister, after all, you had better have someone to blame when things go down the toilet — and nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, as the saying goes. Or, in 2010, should that be Microsoft?

Yes, it’s a solid principle. But the reality is that by publishing such a policy in the very week in which it has maintained an incredibly closed door towards open source software, Gray and the Australian Government Information Management Office he oversees have demonstrated a mammoth hypocrisy towards the subject.

Just one week ago, after all, the very same AGIMO published a comprehensive document which appeared likely to lock open source software out of many of the very same purchasing decisions it discussed in its new policy today. On the face of it, AGIMO’s Common Operating Environment policy does not restrict departments and agencies from using popular open source software platforms such as Firefox, Thunderbird or OpenOffice.org. Indeed, AGIMO explicitly stated that the policy was vendor-neutral.

However, if you dig into the details, it’s clear that the policy has been completely framed around Microsoft’s software family, and in a way that will prove difficult for open source technologies to break into. On paper, for example, is it possible for open source web browsers like Firefox to be “centrally managed and configured”, to have “endorsed security settings” and to comply with “application management” techniques?

Of course it is. But there is no doubt that these requirements have always been primarily features of Internet Explorer, and to implement them in Firefox will require a bit more work and creative thinking than many IT departments are used to.

The same can be said of AGIMO’s support for Microsoft’s Office Open XML document standard. Could you — theoretically — make such the format work in OpenOffice.org? Probably, with a bit of work and engagement with the open source community. But will anyone in the Federal Government do this? Of course they won’t. They’ll just maintain their Microsoft licences.

You can see this pattern repeated throughout the whole Federal Government’s approach to buying software. Open source does not fit the framework which proprietary vendors have painstakingly installed in the minds of organisations like AGIMO over the decades. It’s taken time, but Microsoft has already won that war.

And how it has won.

Last week, AGIMO revealed the true depths of Microsoft’s dominance over the Federal public sector.

Research published by the agency showed that more than 99.5 percent of Government PCs were running Windows, with more than 86 percent using Microsoft Office. And late last year, the Firefox figures were revealed, with AGIMO stating the open source browser was used by just over three percent of Federal Government desktops.

But wait — it gets worse.

AGIMO’s survey of agencies last year showed that those percentages were actually slated to increase — with no agencies planning to upgrade to any software in the future, other than that provided by Microsoft. Windows 7, Office 2007 and Office 2010 were the sole platforms mentioned. Nothing else got a look in.

Wow. Simply wow.

In a world in which software diversity is increasing every day, in which Firefox is considered mainstream, in which many prefer Mac OS X as their desktop of choice and in which almost every single feature of Microsoft Office which anyone uses in their daily life has been replicated perfectly by OpenOffice.org, the Federal Government is strengthening its relationship with Microsoft, not weakening it.

In this context, it’s hard to see AGIMO’s open source policy released today as anything other than a bad joke. If Australia’s Government won’t even consider using such basic and functional pieces of software as Firefox, it’s hard to see where any of the other amazing software options — SugarCRM, Pidgin, OpenOffice.org, VLC, Thunderbird, Audacity, Joomla!, WordPress, MySQL and Apache to name a few — would get a look in.

Then too, we’ve been here before.

In April 2005, then-Special Minister of State Eric Abetz released an official guide to open source software for Government agencies. Abetz, for those with short memories, was a Minister under John Howard. Computerworld wrote at the time that the guide:

“reveals new guidelines that state if an equal or superior open source product adequately fits the government’s needs, it will be expected to be objectively considered by public servants alongside proprietary offerings.”

The guide also went further — warning agencies preparing tenders that they need to take care to “avoid introducing unintentional barriers that may discourage or inhibit open source vendors and resellers from submitting responses”.

Sound familiar?

In fact, it sounds extremely familiar. This is almost the same — word for word — as the open source policy produced by AGIMO this week. It’s more than a case of “back to the future”; AGIMO’s open source policy published this week might as well have been a photocopy of the policy produced under Howard, updated with a slight sting in the tail for naughty agencies that didn’t pay attention. And we saw how far the previous policy got. Far from stimulating the use of open source software in Government, it actually retarded it.

The open source policy announced by the Federal Government this week will be lauded by many as a phenomenal step forward for open source software in Australia. But don’t believe the hype. Before it can talk the talk, our Federal Government and AGIMO itself will need to walk the walk on open source. So far the pair’s track record is nothing short of abysmal.

Image credit: Wardofsky, royalty free


  1. Oh, Renai.

    The tightest bottleneck on large-scale Open Source adoption by Australian Governments is the industry, not the Government itself. The policy announced today is not “a phenomenal step forward”, but expresses to agencies in black and white the procurement intentions the Government has held for a number of years. It will help. Each point entails a small but important step forward.

    Totally disagree with your analysis of the COE by the way. It’s built around utterly understandable gov-scale enterprise requirements, not Microsoft product bullet points.

    Way too cynical stuff here. A dose is good, a flood is not.

    • Re: ‘it will help’, I don’t disagree that theoretically it should; but until I see an outcome different from that garnered under the past seven years of policies in this area, I will remain cynical towards the idea.

      I have received many complaints from govt staff over the past two weeks about their locked down environments that restrict the use of harmless FOSS software that does not actually need to be ‘supported’ in any formal way. This is not the 1980s, and people need a certain amount of freedom in the technology they use if they are to work at even close to their most productive level.

      • How about challenging AGIMO to create its own OSS community, present a comprehensive plans on how to tackle the most urgent requirements in software development in the gov’t sector using open source sotware?

        For sure there will be lots of OSS communities and OSS vendors that will be interested in sharing, working and collaborating with AGIMO! I myself could collaborate in this regard even as a lowly software janitor. :)

        This is the right time for AGIMO to spearhead such collaborative effort if they are really serious in having OSS works in the gov’t sector.

    • Your words mean something if ECMA standard of OOXML was not used. Simple fact I did some more digging MS Office 2007 is not ECMA either. Nothing produces a true ECMA standard OOXML.

      Yes the COE was and is screwed up completely unless it gets corrected. Question who in heck did it and are they going to put there head on the chopping block for the mistake.

  2. Eventually the Australian government will go open source… after every other Western government around the world has already implemented it. The epiphany will probably go something along the lines of “oh crap, we’re still using Microsoft crapware, we better change or else we might come across as being backwards”. This will of course be long after the media and public have made their accusations. The bureaucrats will hide in their cubicles offering the same old excuse… “it wasn’t my fault, blame the system”. Probably shouldn’t complain as if the government wasn’t wasting money on software it would be wasting it on some other level of incompetence.

  3. >>Before it can talk the talk, our Federal Government and AGIMO itself will need to walk the walk on open source. So far the pair’s track record is nothing short of abysmal.

    Before that can happen, open source.. yah know.. for the most part.. needs to not completely suck. **dons flame suit**

    The uproar over going with OOXML recently I just cannot understand. OpenOffice is a steaming pile and will shortly be run into the ground by Oracle, with contributors segmenting and key people jumping ship to LibreOffice.

    So if everyone is going to be on MS Office, why not agree to use the format it works best on.

    >>Totally disagree with your analysis of the COE by the way. It’s built around utterly understandable gov-scale enterprise requirements, not Microsoft product bullet points.

    ^^Agree with this as well.

    • The issue with OOXML is that it breaks a patent on the XML standard. XML’s standard (not the implementation) has a patented standard (so companies cannot create their own version of XML and call it XML)

      Thats however exactly what Microsoft did in office 2007+

  4. To be honest, in regards to Office, Office 2007/2010 is really a LOT better then openoffice, its one of the things that pains me to use Linux (enough so that I have to hassle with using Office through WINE).

    • Get ECMA standard of OOXML tell MS Office 2007 and 2010 to produce decode the files and compare results to the ECMA standard. And find out they fail big time.

      Sorry they are not. No matter how you put it. Basically nothing produces ECMA OOXML. So you are in breach of the COE the Australian government put forwards using MS Office as well. So forget OpenOffice for now. We need a format that at least MS Office can produce so the COE could be workable.

      Yes there is Zero office suites you can use the match the requirements they put down.

      Ok what is a official standard that MS Office can successively produce to standard. ODF 1.1 . Bugger it a OpenOffice supported format. Even more bugger its the only format that MS Office 2007 and MS Office 2010 can produce and not have gremlins transferring documents between them. Stiff briskets about the loss of security frameworks. Stiff biskets that MS Office 2007 can create and open password protected ODF 1.1 and MS Office 2010 cannot. Great very good reason not to migrate to MS Office 2010 at this time and get on to MS for a update also at the same time submit your requirements to openoffice/libraoffice on the basic idea who gets to the requirements first gets the contract.

      Also what is the point of having a COE if groups can choose not to follow it.

  5. The elephant in the room here is the fact that while the ‘standard’ supports inter-operability between documents now, it ignores backward and forward compatability.

    Given that out of the box Office 2007/10 can’t even open Word 95/97/2000 documents, let alone all the stuff saved in WordPro/WordPerfect/OpenOffice formats used by other commercial organisations, how are the Public Service ever going to read documents not prepared with AGMIO in mind? If I’m in a legal firm using WordPerfect (for example), did I/will I save a docx version of every file note/agenda/pleading/etc? Not likely.

    So, who pays the freight for doing all the file conversions when required? Say the Government demands I supply a suite of documents for whatever purpose, I’m surely not going to convert it all to docx. I’ll meet my legal obligation just fine if I send iind and lwp files. After all, they’re in English…

    And what about Government trying to access it’s own archives. How did that speech go when Kevin07 said sorry? Bet you anything it’s not in docx…

    If there’s one thing Microsoft are very good at it’s walking away from supporting any of it’s legacy products. See this link about Microsoft Small Business Financials:
    …all gone! No more! So sorry!

  6. Given that out of the box Office 2007/10 can’t even open Word 95/97/2000 documents, let alone all the stuff saved in WordPro/WordPerfect/OpenOffice formats used by other commercial organisations, how are the Public Service ever going to read documents not prepared with AGMIO in mind?

    Facts.. please. MS Word in 2010 supports MS Office formats back to 97, it also supports OpenDocument and WordPerfect.

    If I’m in a legal firm using WordPerfect (for example), did I/will I save a docx version of every file note/agenda/pleading/etc? Not likely.

    If you want to have any interop with the rest of the world, you’ll use at format the works in MS Office.

    If there’s one thing Microsoft are very good at it’s walking away from supporting any of it’s legacy products.

    Also bollocks.. the product you’ve quoted has been discontinued – it is still however _supported_. Most MS products are supported for 10 years (as is MSOffice) post release (5 years of mainstream support and 5 years of extended support).

    • Do some real world testing please
      >>>Facts.. please. MS Word in 2010 supports MS Office formats back to 97, it also supports OpenDocument and WordPerfect.

      That is bull. For the simple reason MS Word 2010 unless compadiblity flags are turned on will shot the formating of Office 97 documents. Even worse 97 documents are printer dependant so even if you have the compadiblity flags set you still can be shot in 2010 because you have a different printer now.

      OpenOffice does a far better jobs on these old documents allowing for stupid metrics when it detects them.

  7. Hi Renai,

    We are certainly aware that over the past few years there has been relatively modest use of Open Source Software across Australian Government agencies. The survey we did last year demonstrated that adoption of Open Source was not growing significantly. This led us to review the policy.

    The new policy aims to ‘level the playing field’ for open source software by requiring agencies to actively look for open source alternatives when procuring software. We believe that this is a step forward from our previous position of ‘informed neutrality’ and, we hope, will result in greater use of Open Source Software by agencies. This doesn’t mean that agencies must choose open source software – but that they must actively consider it and build this into the procurement process. The evaluation and procurement decision continues to operate within the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines and its core principles of ‘value for money’ and ‘fit for purpose’.

    We will be closely monitoring the effects of this policy change and if we do not see greater use of Open Source Software by agencies, we will look at our policy options again to see if we can take further steps to encourage more agencies to use Open Source Software.



  8. If the government doesn’t understand the benefits of open source, they can’t realise their loss from not implementing it…

    …so ignorance is bliss.

    The government also isn’t well known for listening to anyone except for those already in the loop. The motivation to move towards open source really has to come from within government departments. That’s not likely to happen any time soon; most government departments are disfunctional bureaucratic backstabbing bitchfests to say the least, so unless someone is comfortable with their boss getting a payrise for claiming credit for their idea and cost savings, nobody will bother taking the initiative (or the risk of suggesting something new).

    The crux of the matter is always that nobody ever gets fired for buying Microsoft.

  9. I had plans to migrate one of my businesses (which runs MacOS X exclusively) to OpenOffice from a mix of Office 2004 and Office 2008 at some stage this year. But something strange happened last last year which dashed my plans….namely, Microsoft released Office 2011 at the ridiculously cheap street price of $215 a seat (the proper business edition…not a student/home version…they are even cheaper).

    The decision to stick with Microsoft was based on the fact that no staff retraining would be required, no templates would need to be converted and reformatted (we have hundreds of them), Office2011 is more polished than OpenOffice (it *even* has the earth shattering ability to insert a copied row without the user needing to write a macro or dig through menus), and finally, the vast majority of the businesses that our business deals with use Microsoft Office exclusively so we’re less likely to have compatibility issues when dealing with external parties.

    While Open Office is certainly good for a free product and I’ve used it as my primary office suite since moving away from Office 2008 18 months ago, for the sake of only $215 per seat amortised over a useful lifespan of perhaps 5 years, I can’t see why any business could rationally decide to dump Microsoft Office as things stand presently and move to Open Office. In fact I’ll personally be switching back to Microsoft Office v2011 (sans email), something I never thought I’d contemplate 6 months ago.

    So yes, the public service should definitely be making sound and justifiable purchasing decisions and consider open source offerings as part of this process, however I can’t see much changing as far as office suites go at this point in time.

    There’s no excuse for government to be relying on Microsoft for back end services these days however…if the IT folks deploying such rubbish don’t yet have Linux skills, I expect they’ll be lucky if they can find employment in a few short years.

  10. The direction in which industry and government are travelling with respect to their IT strategies are poles apart. The top ten IT companies which have appeared in the last 15 years all use an open source software stack and commodity hardware stack. The Australian government uses almost exclusively a propriety software stack with a large portion of the IT budget going upon propriety hardware devices include SAN infrastructure.
    In terms of returning value to their stakeholders it’s a safe bet that the companies have it right and governments are getting gouged. The solution is simple for government draw a line in the sand and scap your existing investments because the investments actually belong to the entrenched players.

    Vendors are trying to lock government agencies into technology relationships as this is the best way to provide a long term revenue stream and looking at the existing playing field they’re winning.

    The real question that taxpayers should be asking is why is a personal writing product being used so much in the government space? You have a tool that suitable for writing stories being used as the defacto communications tools between government agencies. A wiki is a true enterprise writing product, it supports version control, search, reviewer comments, a single source of truth and styles that are applied centrally.
    Microsofts current strategy is to position sharepoint as an enterprise wiki with a proprietry front end called the office suite. They are doing this because 50% of their revenue still comes from this suite and they are scared of losing control of enterprise communications to free or cheap wikis. Lets see if government is canny enough to avoid this trap, I doubt it so I’m buying shares in microsoft :)

  11. Majority of the complex open source software (OSS) systems that have been built today do not use Microsoft or Proprietary vendor specific software. Take a look at Facebook, Twitter to name a few. These open source software have been cranking over 500 million transactions per second and provide a day-to-day superb and quality networking for us.

    Mobile manufacturers nowadays are using the Linux driven OS in their hardware mobile platform, which is completely free and have the freedom to update to whatever modification they need.

    To succeed OSS in the gov’t institution, there is a need of culture change and OSS education specifically to the Tech Managers who are still living in stone age or could not change their bias ways towards OSS usage. The FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) are still in the minds of these gov’t tech managers.

    Gov’t tech managers should start browsing OSS communities, go the hard yard and educate themselves and see how these communities share, work and collaborate before OSS will become successful in delivering these to the gov’t. Gov’t tech managers might be in a surprise that one their best tech developer is already in deep sharing, working and collaborating with OSS due to boredom in using closed and proprietary software. Proprietary vendors are selling legacy products and innovation is not foremost in their minds. They are thinking the financial viability of the company and locking the customers first before anything else. OSS communities work the other way around. OSS communities very much like innovations and open standards.

    As a first salvo, gov’t tech managers can go to http://www.apache.org and see how this fantastic OSS community share, work and collaborate.

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