Interview with Johan Linåker (RISE) about the Report on software reuse

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Software Reuse through Open Source Software in the Public Sector (extract of the cover)
Software Reuse through Open Source Software in the Public Sector (extract of the cover)

Sachiko Muto and Johan Linåker are senior researchers at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, which supports the public sector and industry in using and collaborating on open technologies to achieve and enable interoperability, digital sovereignty and innovation.

Johan Linåker agreed to answer our questions about RISE's recently published report, Software Reuse through Open Source Software in the Public Sector (pdf).

Hi Johan. Can you tell us more about the story behind this report?

The report was commissioned by the Danish Agency for Digital Government (Digitaliseringsstyrelsen) to investigate how organizations within the public sector enable and facilitate software reuse, specifically through Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as an instrument. It is based on 16 case studies of countries highlighted as digitally mature through different indexes. The cases were surveyed in terms of policies enabling software reuse of FOSS, and what support actions had been introduced to help implement the policies. Based on the findings, we propose a range of recommendations for policy and practice.

What is the purpose of this report and who is the intended audience?

The purpose was to provide input on how Danish public sector organizations can become better at reaping benefits by reusing existing software and creating value by developing software so it can be reused. The intended audience includes policymakers, civil servants, and vendors, but may also be interesting for the broader FOSS ecosystem as it provides both recommendations and insights through the 16 case studies.

What are the main findings and were you personally surprised by any of them?

The surveyed countries exhibit diverse policies, emphasizing interoperability, digital sovereignty, transparency, and cost efficiency. While cost efficiency interoperability and transparency were commonly referred to, much less attention was paid to digital sovereignty and even less to cyber security and sustainability aspects related to FOSS. The latter is rather surprising but can potentially be explained by the relatively recent uprise of these topics in public debates. We hope and strongly recommend that these topics be considered explicitly in upcoming policies.

The report further identifies emerging support structures, including Open Source Program Offices (OSPOs), which are crucial for building institutional capacity. Concrete guidelines on how to interpret and implement policies, e.g., how to consider FOSS in an acquisition process (i.e., inbound policies) or when and how to release software funded by public money as FOSS (i.e., outbound policies).

Software catalogs were also commonly used in different ways to showcase and promote the reuse of FOSS, either developed, funded, or used by public sector organizations. Success stories highlight the transformation of the software projects to sustainable governance enabled through the use of neutral proxy organizations acting as stewards for public sector FOSS projects.

Do National Open Source Programme Office effectively help implementing OSS policies in public sector organisations?

This is indeed one of the recommendations. Although the naming convention and form vary, the report identifies the past, current, and emerging presence of support functions and centers of competency for FOSS and software reuse, also referred to as Open Source Program Offices (OSPOs). These OSPOs have developed at national, institutional, and local government levels, playing a crucial role in building institutional capacity for software reuse through FOSS.

Association-based OSPOs specifically help less capable PSOs to pool resources and enable the sustainable maintenance and governance of common FOSS projects. In the French context, we consider the Free Software Unit inside DINUM as a National Government OSPO, and ADULLACT as an Association-based OSPO on the municipal level. Institution-centric OSPO are also commonly found, e.g., as in the case of Pôle emploi.

Can you share a success story in terms of software reuse?

There are several success stories of public sector FOSS projects, such as X-Road, Signalen, and gvSIG, demonstrating the potential and opportunities for (re)use and collaborative development of FOSS cross-border. The highlighted projects exemplify the common practice of hosting projects in independent organizations where the public sector organizations are either members or owners.

These joint organizations, similar to the foundations commonly found in the broader FOSS ecosystem, acts as Open Source Stewards, and help pool resources and collaborate on planning, procurement, development, and maintenance of the project(s). More capable public sector organizations, such as larger cities and municipalities, typically play a leading role in the development and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the projects.

What are the report's main recommendations?

Several recommendations are made based on the synthesized findings and best practices observed across the cases. From the policy perspective, we propose that policies are designed considering both the inbound (acquisition of FOSS) and outbound (release of FOSS) use cases, as well as how the policies can help to achieve and enable policy goals, including interoperability, digital sovereignty, cost efficiency, transparency, and cyber security.

From the policy support perspective, we propose several potential initiatives, including the establishment of OSPOs at different levels of government, the creation of necessary guidelines to interpret the policies, the creation and leveraging of communities both within the public sector and the wider FOSS ecosystem, and the creation of catalogs for promoting reuse of FOSS for the public sector organizations.

What we have not observed in the case studies is a forward-looking approach to planning, steering, and following up on goals and practices for enabling software reuse through FOSS, and its impact, short and long-term. Current indicators for digital maturity, of which some were used for the sampling in the report, to various degrees touch on the topic of FOSS in relation to digital transformation, but none go into detail, looking at actual steps taken to enable software reuse or potential policy goals attached. We, therefore, thoroughly recommend that such metrics are developed, both among countries aiming to leverage OSS as an instrument in their digital transformation and among the organizations maintaining the indicators for digital maturity as they act as a guiding light for countries looking to mature and evolve. The recommendations of the report may serve as part of the foundation for such indicators.

How should the EU move forward in terms of effective cooperation on OSS for PSO?

Promote the adoption of the necessary policies and support initiatives throughout the member states. Here, the EC's OSPO network may serve as one important enabler and convener.

More work and investigation should also be done towards enabling cross-border reuse to larger extents. While many (or most) of the FOSS developed in the different member states may not be generalizable, some will and can provide huge benefits if realized.

Finally, we strongly encourage the design and adoption of FOSS-related indicators among the relevant indexes, such as DESI, to enable planning, steering, and following up on goals and practices for enabling software reuse through FOSS.

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