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Tech & Digitalisation

Open-Source Software: Three Considerations for Digital-Government Transformation


Commentary21st December 2023

The use of open-source software (OSS) has expanded globally in the past 20 years due to its technological flexibility and potential cost advantages. OSS, whose source code can be freely accessed and modified, has been used to support commercial products in the private sector and government projects as a digital public good (DPG).

OSS growth in the private sector has been dramatic; according to a 2022 report by GitHub, one of the largest open-source code bases, around 97 per cent of apps available on the private market use at least some type of OSS. In the public sector, governments have promoted and increased their use of OSS, with many accelerating policy adoption. Globally, governments have passed 669 OSS policies from 1999 to 2022.  

The potential of OSS to provide innovative solutions for governments has become increasingly apparent in recent years, with the development of tools that are responsive to each country’s unique needs and challenges, possibly at a significantly lower cost than proprietary software. This is especially important for governments with limited infrastructure, resources and technological expertise. Proprietary software – whose source code is private, must be purchased by licence and can only be modified by its author, typically a company – comes with major barriers such as high costs and vendor lock-in, making OSS more appealing as a viable alternative for digital government services. 

In fact, governments in both high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have already used OSS to develop systems and platforms to address major challenges in public-service delivery. OSS has also provided opportunities for governments to innovate and resolve critical issues such as delivery, responsiveness and security. For example, governments in Zambia, Rwanda and Cambodia have leveraged OSS to develop digital-ID systems, health-data exchanges and whole-of-government data-exchange platforms. In specific cases, such as Estonia’s X-Road and India Stack, governments have worked with academic institutions, fintechs, private firms and NGOs to develop and export OSS platforms around the world. 

Open source has also helped to provide governments with access to cutting-edge technology. Artificial intelligence (AI), such as large language models (LLMs), has paved the way for transformative change in public-service delivery. Powerful open-source AI systems, such as BLOOM by Hugging Face and GPT-Neo by EleutherAI, have released their AI chatbots (like ChatGPT) publicly, which could allow governments to unlock unprecedented benefits for citizens and public agencies at scalable costs. Built and trained on large open-source datasets, such as the Pile by EleutherAI, LLMs can use open-source licensing to improve user experiences and data-processing times for public-policy decision-making. Overall, open-source foundational models have the capability to democratise the way AI tech tools are acquired and used by governments and agencies.

However, OSS is not without major challenges, from unanticipated costs and AI-governance questions to integration problems and maintenance needs. Adoption is not always a seamless process. Even with free OSS-based technology such as databases and platforms, implementation within digital government services can come with large and unforeseen costs, such as the training budget needed to upskill civil servants for open-source-based programmes and platforms. These costs can increase public spending and erode the financial gains of open-source applications. AI can also raise important questions about security, performance, accuracy and intellectual property (IP) rights. For instance, if LLMs are made available to everyone, how can governments regulate them responsibly to decrease harm? Or, if LLMs are trained on information and data that is protected by copyright law, who owns the IP rights of the digital products?  

Policymakers increasingly view technology as the key enabler for delivering better public services, from digitalising health records to catalysing infrastructure development. As leaders work to harness the benefits of technology for public good, they need clear strategies founded in evidence-based practices. Adopting OSS-based programmes can be complicated, and doing so requires an understanding of the obligations and challenges of open source. Therefore, when considering OSS adoption, governments must carefully assess the costs and risks across three areas:  

1. Evaluating the Costs of OSS Solutions 

Cost is one of the most important factors for governments to consider. A common misconception is that OSS will be cost-free to implement; that purchase costs are often the only expense to consider. However, this is a serious oversight that can grow into a bigger problem if not properly vetted. While purchase costs are generally low, integration and operating costs for OSS can be significant, even when compared to proprietary software. Public expenditure varies significantly depending on each country’s needs. This requires governments to develop a detailed total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) analysis to inform decision-making when considering OSS adoption.  

Integrating OSS so that it is an effective tool for delivering public services requires technical expertise and customisation. If not managed properly, resources for integration – including essentials such as installation expenses and workforce training – can significantly increase costs. X-Road, developed in Estonia, is a good example of integration-related costs. While the software that powers the impressive data-exchange layer is open source and includes cost estimates on adoption and integration, implementing the platform and customising its software can incur considerable fees for governments depending on needs. 

Governments should also consider operating costs for running and maintaining OSS systems. These vary in scale, but often include requirements such as system updates, bug fixes and workforce upskilling. Often there are open-source communities and teams to support the maintenance of government projects, but those can also be costly to sustain. For example, a 2023 audit by Synopses found that approximately 89 per cent of the 1,700 plus codebases it examined contained components that were out of date by at least four years. To ensure that software is running at optimal levels, governments may have to invest significant funds in OSS communities as well.  

2. Understanding the Technical Requirements for Implementing OSS Solutions 

Another critical consideration for governments thinking of adopting OSS is their nation’s existing technological infrastructure and capacity. Governments must take stock of their technical capabilities – including basics such as cloud services, connectivity, databases and security measures – and the requirements needed to implement and operate OSS-based platforms and systems. This will equip governments with an understanding of their overall digital maturity and allow for an assessment of any technical gaps that should be addressed for successful implementation of OSS solutions.  

For example, in 2012 the Canadian government transitioned from proprietary software to OSS (Drupal) for its national government web platform. Key to this transition was government ownership of hardware that was compatible with OSS, the use of on-site servers to comply with data-sovereignty requirements and the infrastructure’s ability to work effectively in the sometimes low-connectivity environment of Canada’s northernmost outposts. Understanding and addressing these baseline requirements facilitated a more efficient transition to OSS solutions.  

It is also important for governments to develop and support open-source tech communities. While proprietary software may come with comprehensive support from skilled teams, governments will likely pay higher prices and risk vendor lock-in. OSS communities, governed and maintained by public or private entities to deliver tech products and applications, can offer significant benefits. For instance, the Apache Software Foundation, an OSS community, has been integral to the development of many widely used open-source projects. Fostering a large and active community ensures that projects receive continuous development, maintain high quality and have robust support. 

3. Developing Outcome-Based Approaches and Appropriate Regulatory Frameworks 

Rather than viewing OSS as a “catch-all” solution for digital public services, governments considering adopting OSS should construct a framework to better define their tech goals, guide decision-making, and anticipate any policy and regulatory issues that may arise. Developing a plan that incorporates a cross-section of public agencies, along with specific problems that open-source solutions could directly address, should be a priority. Specifically, policy designs should include sections on operating-cost goals, enforcement procedures and remedies for legal violations.

Ukraine’s use of OSS to address a challenge it was facing exemplifies these principles. Corruption in public procurement presented a major problem in the European nation. The government decided to tackle the issue by adopting a fair and transparent procurement system built on an open-source e-government platform called ProZorro. A multi-pronged approach that involved a public-private partnership, ProZorro was built on OSS to reduce costs, encourage greater collaboration and, most importantly, to enable a platform that delivered transparency at every stage of the procurement process. The platform’s reliance on OSS saved the government money in development costs and continues to promote transparency by allowing various professionals (such as technologists and academics) to see and review the system’s source code. 

In addition to building on lessons from other nations, governments are taking more novel approaches to policy planning and OSS adoption. The proliferation of open-source programme offices (OSPOs) has created new opportunities for governments to facilitate policymaking and provide public services in collaboration with private-sector firms. Tech companies such as Microsoft and Google are increasingly establishing OSPOs and they are also becoming more popular with governments. OSPOs are important because they operate as a one-stop shop on best practices for governments pursuing OSS adoption. If developed and utilised correctly, OSPOs can be a tremendous resource, providing guidance on OSS matters ranging from governance and legal compliance to security. Additionally, OSPOs can be extremely helpful in growing and fostering OSS communities, particularly for governments, since the services needed for public-service delivery are broader than those required in the private sector. A well-functioning OSS community can help to sustain OSS-based programmes and ultimately lead to greater transparency and accountability in public institutions.

Developing policies and frameworks for problems that OSS solutions might resolve, combined with context-specific solutions – whether LLMs, data-exchange platforms or other service-delivery options – should provide governments with a foundation and plan for deciding whether to pursue open-source technology or proprietary solutions.   

Evaluating Solutions for Digital-Government Transformation 

As a new wave of technological options offers global leaders opportunities to transform public services, governments must carefully evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each solution prior to adoption. The allure of no-cost (or low-cost) OSS is clear, particularly for governments in LMICs, but without a framework to analyse its suitability for problems at hand and at all stages of the implementation process, governments could end up with technology that is costly and ineffective. By systematically evaluating the merits of OSS, governments can identify the right solution to deliver better services to their citizens. 

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