We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

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