Open Source Case Study and Open Source Governance

The OSOR Case Studies section this month covers Grosseto’s OpenPortalGuard eID system. The case study tells the story about an Italian case of excellence, started in 2003 when  the Italian government decided to introduce eID cards. Grosseto, to acquire an eID-based access control system for its ICT infrastructure, applied a rigorous open source strategy, aiming to cut implementation and operational costs.

Is it a sustainable choice for small public administrations?

For Bruegger it gradually became evident that for Grosseto to develop its own access control system would save money in the long run, while at the same time offering greater interoperability, which was one of the biggest shortcomings of the previous system. “We didn’t have funds to put [into this project]. We had only human resources”, Bruegger says.[..]

Reading the case study and knowing that the man behind it, Bud Bruegger, today doesn’t work for Grosseto municipality anymore, open source governance issues came up in my mind. Procurement departments and HR directors often know little about open source usage and adoption. Participation to open source projects is not managed, at least by small-medium organizations. Sometimes, even active contributions to competitive international events or participating in standard bodies are seen as a private hobby much rather than a paid work activity and a prerequisite for the indispensable work with the community.

Avoiding lock-in is still hot, but trading time to save money – buying as less services as possible to try to get to open source self-sufficiency – may not be as easy as it may first seem. Companies or organizations basing their activities on open source projects, either existent or new ones, need to properly feed the hackers they hired or contracted. Beyond coding, the ability to foster communities or interact with external stakeholders requires soft skills and tacit knowledge that usually very difficult to transfer.

Grosseto is unlikely to keep driving innovation now, and worst may end up to having problems to operationally mantain its infrastructure. Small municipalities as well as small companies can get into this kind of trouble, and collaborative initiatives seem to be the only answer.

Open source adoptionpaid or not – demand for open source policies and procedures. By going open source Grosseto saved big bucketsand has harvested international acclaim.  But by failing to sustain their key staff that enabled the establishment of Grosseto in the open source world, the current success may well turn into a liability.  This is even more evident considering that the attempt of creating a larger community around the project on the OSOR forge has been abandoned, at least by Grosseto.

Once more, free software is not a free meal, but a great opportunity that need to be managed.