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A Policy Win For Open Source Software In New Zealand

A Policy Win For Open Source Software In New Zealand

The recent announcement of a new policy framework providing guidance to public agencies on the licensing of open source software (OSS) will lead to better results across government and industry by enabling more collaboration. The policy is significant as it increases the likelihood of future government web services being developed using open source code and allowing external parties to copy, adapt or integrate their features. It will drive more efficient use of public money, more integrated government web services, local innovation and economic growth. However, perhaps most remarkable is the transparent and collaborative online consultation and drafting process through which this ambitious idea became a robust policy in less than a year.

The original NZGOAL policy released in 2010 provided clear guidance to publicly funded agencies on how to apply Creative Commons licenses to their information, data and content enabling re-use by others and has been wide acclaimed for successfully driving open data practices. New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing – Software Extension (NZGOAL-SE) now extends that approach by providing further guidance on how to apply two commonly used free and open source licenses to publicly funded and developed software. The new policy is hoped to:



• Raise awareness in the government and private sectors of OSS licensing as a viable option

• Serve as a reminder that agencies are publicly funded so they should consider wherever possible making software assets available to the public

• Provide ways to make it easier to do so for people working in the sector

Both policies are now published on ICT.govt.nz along with further guidance notes to help agencies interpret or use them meaning that New Zealand now has a single framework providing clear guidelines and robust legal recommendations in one place for open licensing of information, content, data and software. This levels the playing field for OSS by outlining the many benefits of using it and providing clarity around how to do so. As a result software developed or procured by Government agencies in the future is far more likely to make use of open source code in its design and to be released as open source.

A Clear Need

Governments today are challenged to meaningfully engage more people through technology with less money than ever before. Where taxpayer money is being spent on developing web services, governments need to ensure that the money is used efficiently to engage a diverse citizenry and to facilitate local innovation and economic growth. However recent high profile cases like the Novopay payroll service nightmare have highlighted the limitations of such proprietary software in this regard.

Uncertainty over copyright status, can also be a major barrier for government employees, researchers, developers, free software communities and others who might want to make use of pre-existing source code.

There is a growing acceptance among governments globally of the importance and benefits of more open and accessible government with over 70 nations signed on to the Open Government Partnership (OGP). By joining this partnership in 2013, New Zealand made a commitment to ‘promote transparency, fight corruption, empower citizens, and harness the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable.’

However, a recent independent review of New Zealand’s OGP Action Plan by lawyer and academic Steven Price has identified concerns with both the process and the goals. Following interviews with people and organisations with an interest in open government, Price has noted widespread concern that the Government’s plan was unambitious and that “Cabinet decided the main parts of the plan very early, conducted very little consultation, and ignored most of the feedback received.” Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer was perhaps most scathing in his comment that “It looks more like a conversation the executive government is having with itself.” In light of such criticism, both the NZGOAL-SE policy and the highly inclusive consultation process it followed represent welcome progress towards meeting our OGP commitment of bringing collaborative practices ‘from the periphery to the core’ of government.

A timely intervention

Catalyst for this project Cam Findlay has a background in free and open source software development and is a passionate advocate for the theory and the practical benefits of this increasingly popular way of working. In his former role as ‘Community Manager and Developer Advocate’ at Silver Stripe - Cam was responsible for engagement around the ‘Common Web Platform’ – a public-private initiative shared technology platform for web service delivery widely used by New Zealand government agencies. A core benefit of this platform is reusability of OSS code, however Cam noticed that there was relatively low sharing by government workers actually taking place. His inquiry into the causes highlighted poor awareness of the legal status and potential benefits of sharing due to a lack of any clear government guidelines for consistent licensing of software.

Cam raised this regulatory gap in a panel discussion at the Open Source Open Society Conference (OS//OS) in 2015. A conversation at the conference with a senior member of the NZ Open Government Information and Data Programme (OGIDP) at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) landed Cam a 3-month secondment as a Senior Advisor (Open Source) working to create a community consultation process to develop a software framework to supplement NZGOAL. According to OGIDP Programme Leader Paul Stone this addition was already on the fringes but some outside energy and new ideas about the process were just what was needed to finally catalyse action.

Defaulting to Open

There is a clear trend globally towards OSS in the public sector with over 40 governments creating positive policy environments for OSS. The USA ‘Digital Services Playbook’ for example encourages agencies to ‘default to open’ by considering the use of open source solutions across their ‘technology stack’. This fundamental shift away from single use and proprietary software to more modularity, reuse, and a focus on interoperability (different bits of software playing together nicely) is driven both by the philosophy of Open Government and by a need to produce more innovative forms of citizen engagement With ever tightening government IT budgets, OSS is recognised as the best way to achieve these goals as it is better, cheaper, faster and more secure than proprietary software.

Open Source Driving Open Innovation

‘Open Innovation’ means enabling organisations to utilise both external and internal knowledge to innovate and requires removing boundaries and connecting public and private organisations in a value network where both risks and rewards are shared. Increased code sharing will mean less re-inventing of digital wheels leading to cost savings, efficiencies and increased innovation. According to Cam, OSS provides more innovation and economic growth as it means departments and businesses can more easily modify and customise online services to leverage unique strengths and competitive advantages. Paul gives an example of potential interoperability as an Air New Zealand check-in system being integrated with DIA systems to enable notifications to users that their passport is up for renewal.

New Zealand may have been a bit slow out of the gates on the uptake of OSS compared to other governments such as the UK, but we have already made significant advances in the open data space. An example of private sector success using open government data is ANZ’s successful ‘Truckometer’ application, which uses NZ Transport Agency open traffic volume data to create an accurate predictor for future GDP. This monthly newsletter supports businesses, individuals, the Reserve Bank, NZTA and other organisations to make better planning decisions.

With such clear benefits, some may question why NZGOAL-SE has taken a more voluntary guideline based approach rather than the ‘default to open’ or a more mandatory requirement such as Bulgaria has introduced. However according to Paul Stone, this carrots rather than sticks approach has already proved successful in the open data space with the NZGOAL policy having what he called a ‘snowball effect’. Once clarity exists and awareness of the benefits of using OSS in government settings is raised there is no reason why departments will not adopt open software sharing just as eagerly as they have with open data. When open data and open software intersect we will really start to see some innovative and useful results as government websites and online services become more connected and private enterprise and NGOs use government code to make useful applications.

Is Open Source Secure?

In the context of such sensitive data, there are sure to be some hesitations regarding security, which may in part explain the government’s slow uptake of OSS so far. However, according to Cam such concerns are largely based on common misconceptions and out-dated ideas about Open Source. There is no reason why OSS should mean data is any less secure than proprietary software. In fact, in 2009 the US Department of Defence released a memorandum recommending use of OSS due to its enhanced security potential.

Cam states that regardless of the type of code used, security comes down to the precautions taken and maintenance of the code by developers regardless of the open or close source status of the work. OSS can really help in this area as it ensures wider reuse by developers. Cam says “if it gets used, it gets maintained and looked after.” This can offer the benefit of better testing and location of ‘bugs’ and even enables community members to submit ‘patches’ to fix them. NZGOAL-SE includes a detailed section dealing with security issues, which agencies can use to assess whether to keep certain data, code chunks or even entire sites in proprietary licensing if necessary.

An Open Process

The open, transparent and collaborative online consultation and drafting process followed to create NZGOAL-SE could have far-reaching impacts on the way public policy is developed in the future and will enhance New Zealand’s status as a society with open government. Cam’s involvement in designing this consultation process was a key factor in its success due to his understanding of the OSS community and skills and experience facilitating collaborative engagement and co-creation processes. This novel approach to involving both government and the tech sector resulted in a unique and inspiring consultation and drafting process that drew heavily upon open source organising principles and methods.

The consultation was carried out in an open and transparent manner using Loomio - an internationally acclaimed open source online consensus-building tool developed locally by Enspiral in Wellington. This approach allowed active participation and engagement by more than 30 people at senior levels in the information technology community as well as members of the open source development community. According to Paul and Cam, the level and quality of input gained through this process would have been impossible under traditional Government consultation methods and it has resulted in a very detailed and robust policy with good buy in from across the sector.

The tone of the consultation using Loomio was very open and bottom up from the outset leading to an inclusive final policy that most participants were happy with. Points of difference or contention in the draft policy were discussed and agreed upon through Loomio discussion and the final draft was iteratively revised online using ‘GitHub’ – a tool long used by the open source community for collaborative co-working. Another key benefit of this online process is that a very transparent and user-friendly public record is maintained which complies with the Public Records Act. The Loomio consultation process included 16 different threads of dialogue, 175 comments, and over 28,000 words of discussion that anyone can view to see exactly why a particular change was made or an approach recommended.

This innovative and successful engagement process represents an excellent example of modern, shared and collaborative decision making across both Government and industry that should garner international attention. Other countries such as the UK and Australia have some regulatory coverage, however it is unlikely that many policies internationally include the level of detail and comprehensive nature of this framework. Feedback from participants involved in the engagement process was overwhelmingly positive. You can log on at Loomio.org and search for ‘nzgoal software extension’ to read the full discussion and feedback, but here are just a few examples:

“I've been telling anybody who'd listen for some time that we need a software license equivalent to the Creative Commons license recommendations in NZ GOAL…this is a huge step forwards for software freedom…I welcome this chance to give feedback during the formative stages of the recommendations (open government at work!), and I'd like to acknowledge and thank those who made this possible...” Strypey, Loomio

“It will be received as a seminal document both in NZ and abroad and its impact will be wider than just the NZ Government.” Don Christie, Loomio

"You've achieved amazing engagement from the community to create much better policy! Well done, Paul and Cam! #FOSS"

Dave Lane @lightweight - Twitter, Jul 13

What Next for Open Source in NZ?

Now that the GOAL-SE framework is effect, Cam is joining the Open Data Programme on a consulting basis so he can continue to work in this space with Paul and the team. They are busy writing up a full case study report on the public consultation process, and there will no doubt be interest from across the sector both here and abroad in the findings. Future steps will include drafting further guidance notes on operational aspects, which will allow for better future proofing as they can constantly be updated to fit the circumstances of the rapidly evolving technology space. A network of Data Champions consisting of senior Executives within key government departments will assist to increase awareness and drive implementation of the policy across the sector.

According to Cam, the full impacts of the policy will be really seen when a strong community of sharing practice and trust between government agencies and the open source community is in place. The long-term goal of increasing technical support and creating a ‘discovery portal’ will ensure that developers can easily find and access OSS code when they need to. This was just outside the scope of the framework but will be an important part of ensuring uptake and fostering more effective collaboration between agencies. It will also enable issues such as security and interoperability to be discussed and dealt with collectively and further increase efficiencies, cost savings and innovation.

Summary

Cam Findlay will be presenting alongside Keitha Booth (Public Lead at Creative Commons Aotearoa) at the Open Source Open Society Conference on 22 August 2016 where they will discuss the value and benefits of open licensing and the potential for applying open consultation and drafting processes to other public policy challenges. With passionate champions such as these and the new guidelines and tools available, we can expect to see a strong community of software sharing in the public sector in the near future. Once this is in place we can look forward to a more open and connected government and society with increased opportunities for collaboration across sectors, innovation and economic growth.


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