Open source, open standards and the drive towards e-government were, as usual the main topics discussed at SITA’s annual GovTech conference held in Durban last month. For a change however, the departments delivering updates on the progress they had made with regards to their initiatives and more specifically, those that centred on open source adoption had tangible results to report.
SITA led the charge with a confirmation that it had successfully built a distribution of Linux capable of unseating the incumbent Microsoft Windows and Office environment in its ecosystem. Ever since parliament’s approval of government’s free and open source software (FOSS) policy on 28 February last year, the market has been waiting with bated breath to see the first proof points of this policy in practice.
While scattered accounts of open source adoption had been reported since the policy was approved, SITA’s announcement that its move to open source was underway – with its Linux desktop ready for prime time and its back-end systems migration due to kick off at the beginning of next year – was, in many ways, the evidence the market needed that things were in fact moving in an open direction.
The agency used GovTech as a platform to demonstrate just how capable its choice of client-side open source solutions is.
Interestingly, SITA CIO, Eghshaan Kahn took a layman’s approach to showcase the Ubuntu Linux desktop that SITA will be rolling out.
Kahn’s demonstration of Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) dealt with the more basic elements of the operating system, like its drag-and-drop GUI, the ability to multitask and network; not to mention support productivity suites, send e-mail and do other very basic tasks.
With change management considered to be one of the biggest challenges government will have to face on this road to open source, tackling a Linux demonstration in this way definitely left the majority of the attendees convinced that it is a capable alternative to Microsoft Windows.
Open source and open standards
The debate that took place shortly after Kahn’s demonstration in concert with the minister of Public Service and Administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moloketi’s talk on the opening day, highlighted that open standards adoption is every bit as important, if not more important as the use of open source software.
An unlikely candidate to talk on open source and open standards, Microsoft Platform strategy manager, Paulo Ferreira opined that open standards should take precedence to open source when it comes to choosing IT solutions in both the public and private sector.
Citing open standards’ ability to act as a catalyst for collaboration, innovation and better value for money, Ferreira said that Microsoft was in the process of forming local councils to drive open standards-based collaboration and debate.
Far more surprising however was the fact that Ferreira said that while the company is undoubtedly a little more focused on open standards, it has in the past two years become far more active in the open source space.
Of the 170 000 projects hosted on Sourceforge, he reported that 52% are cross platform, that 14% are specifically written for Windows and that 30% are written with the .Net framework.
“We are proving to be a good platform for open source software,” he added.
Embrace, extend and extinguish
For many attending the conference however, Ferreira’s comments held questionable validity.
Criticising Microsoft’s embrace, extend and extinguish strategy, SITA’s CTO, Daniel Mashao, said government cannot count on Microsoft’s recent support of standards, such as the Open Document Format (ODF) being around for any length of time and that this is one of the reasons open source software must be used.
While Ferreira countered this comment by saying that Microsoft has even gone so far as appointing people to the OASIS committee that steers the ODF standard and that the company both supports open standards and believes that open source software is a first-class citizen, he also said that his company believes that both open source and proprietary software will continue to evolve and coexist over the coming years.
“We want to be collaborative, participative in driving innovation and solving the skills issues in our market. And we believe that both open source and proprietary software have a part to play in this equation,” he added.
This was a line from Microsoft, but it must be said, one that was rather predictable – the company’s software becomes less and less applicable as open source continues to make more inroads into government.
The only way it can continue to be a part of government’s IT strategy is for its solutions to be seen as complementary to open source.
Whether in fact, this turns out to be a reality is something only time will tell.
Not without setbacks
The progress the public sector has made in moving forward with open source was however marred by the news that Llewellyn Jones who had been appointed to the post of CEO less than a year previously had tendered his resignation the week prior to GovTech.
Jones delivered his keynote at the opening of the conference to an audience who had not yet gotten wind of his resignation. Not minutes after his talk had been delivered however, the news began filtering through the ranks and drove the atmosphere of the event into disarray.
The reason behind Jones’ resignation was however far more worrying than the mere fact that he elected to resign so soon after his appointment.
In reports that surfaced in the days that followed GovTech, Jones alleged that Government CIO, Michelle Williams had interfered with the awarding of a tender process by ordering Jones to give business to the number four bidder on the list, namely Praxis computing.
With news of previous altercations between Jones and Williams surfacing at the same time as Jones’ resignation, it would seem that this event was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Suspicions have arisen as to Williams’ reasons for intervening in the awarding of the tender, but as yet, these suspicions have not pointed to her as the one in the wrong. That said, the Department of Public Service and Administration has subsequently launched an investigation into the exact circumstances leading to this brouhaha.
Instead of being a witch-hunt, Ramona Baijnath, spokeswoman for the Public Service and administration minister has said that the investigation that has been launched would focus on the initial adjudication of the tender and suspicion that inappropriate criteria was used to award the tender to GijimaAST – the first player on the list.
Baijnath said that SITA had changed the criteria for evaluating the bid and that the government CIO’s office brought this to the attention of Treasury and the Auditor-General.
This is said to have been the reason Williams instructed Jones to award the tender to Praxis instead of GijimaAST.
An ensuing bun-fight
While little news on the débâcle has surfaced since then, other than the fact that Femke Pienaar has been appointed as interim CEO – the results of the department of public service and administration’s probe will undoubtedly be interesting.
Having witnessed the effect of the positive results so many departments were able to report from the event, it will be sad to see SITA’s ability to deliver on its mandate with perfectly sound behaviour being called into question once again.
Popular opinion in the market is that this will do nothing but destroy any faith the public sector (and the market in general) has managed to build up in SITA as an effective vehicle for Government IT procurement and steering.
The fallout from the Department of Public Service and Administration’s probe will undoubtedly be huge – we can only hope that it does not undo all of the good things GovTech was able to highlight.
Apart from the regular updates on where government’s IT strategies are going and where it is managing to deliver on those strategies, the most important news was SITA committing to a real move towards open source and open standards. Unfortunately, however, the background noise resulting from Llewellyn Jones’ resignation as SITA CEO left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths and soured the event somewhat. It must be asked whether SITA is ever going to bed down and be capable of keeping leadership for any acceptable length of time. Is the concept of SITA flawed or are the controls around it just not up to scratch?
We reserve judgement for now.