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A Policy Win For Open Source Software in NZ

A Policy Win For Open Source Software in New Zealand

By: Joseph Cederwall

The recent announcement of a new policy framework on open source software (OSS) licensing will lead to better results across government and industry by enabling more collaboration.

This 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. This will provide more efficient use of public money, more integrated government web services and contribute to driving local innovation and economic growth. However, what is perhaps most remarkable about this new framework is the transparent and collaborative online consultation and drafting process through which this ambitious idea became a robust policy in less than a year.

Paul Stone (Programme Leader) and Cam Findlay (Senior Adviser Open Source) at the NZ Open Government Information and Data Programme (OGIDP) at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) were interviewed about this policy on today’s Radio NZ Nine to Noon Show (Audio available here). Cam will also be speaking further on the topic along with Keitha Booth of OGIDP at the OS//OS Open Source Open Society Conference on August 22/23rd.


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A Clear Need

Governments today are challenged to meaningfully engage more people through technology with less money than ever before.

As a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) New Zealand has made commitments 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 our OGP Action Plan by Lawyer and researcher Steven Price has raised concerns about the lack of ambition and progress and inadequate public engagement.

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 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. Cam was a ‘Developer Advocate’ at SilverStripe (a shared web service platform provider used extensively by government departments), when he noticed this uncertainty was resulting in relatively low software sharing by public sector employees. Seeing this missed opportunity led Cam to catalyse and eventually provide advice to the Government on the drafting and consultation process of a policy to provide clarity around open source licensing.

The GOAL-SE Policy—a Game Changer

Open Source Software (OSS) is increasingly recognised globally as offering more robust, cheaper, faster and more secure software outcomes than proprietary software.

The New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing—Software Extension (NZGOAL-SE) attempts to leverage these advantages by recommending a range of open licensing options, outlining the many benefits of using them and providing clarity on how to do so. This policy will facilitate departments to release source code for software under terms by which other departments can adapt or modify the code to build their own software. This will increase ‘interoperability’ or government web services ‘playing nicely together’ and lead to cost savings, efficiencies of scale and more collaboration across the sector.

The policy will also make it easier for external parties to take advantage of government developed web services for creative and innovative purposes. This will lead to a proliferation of innovative new applications or interfaces making our lives easier by allowing more effective online engagement with government services. This, for example could look like an Air New Zealand check-in system linking to government systems and notifying users when their passport is up for renewal or even lodging a new application. Local start-up enterprises stand to benefit most from the lower upfront investment and the superior customisation potential of OSS to help them leverage their unique strengths and comparative advantages.

Open Policy—Open Process

Both the NZGOAL-SE policy itself and the open and transparent consultation process it utilised represent welcome progress towards New Zealand’s OGP commitments to harnessing technology to offer more open government and citizen engagement.

This inclusive and transparent consultation and drafting process could have far-reaching impacts for the way our public policy is developed in the future and should garner international attention. The process drew heavily upon open source organising principles and methods and was conducted through Loomio—an internationally acclaimed open source online consensus building tool developed locally by Enspiral in Wellington. Anyone can log in toLoomio to view a full public record of the discussion and feedback by searching ‘nzgoal software extension’.

This approach allowed active participation and engagement in developing the policy by both senior government IT professionals and members of the open source community. According to Paul, the level and quality of input gained 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 both sectors.

Breaking down Barriers at OS//OS 2015

A crucial step in the realisation of this policy was a fortuitous meeting at the Open Source Open Society Conference (OS//OS) in 2015 between Cam Findlay and a senior member of the OGIDP.

Cam raised the need to address this regulatory gap in a panel discussion at OS//OS which led to further barrier-breaking discussions between experts in the open source tech and government sectors. Cam was eventually offered a 3-month secondment at LINZ as a Senior Adviser (open source) to help develop the policy framework. His external energy and perspective was a key factor in the success of this policy due to his sound understanding of open source principles and experience facilitating collaborative engagement and co-creation processes in that context.

What Next for OSS in New Zealand?

Fast-forward a year… the NZGOAL-SE policy is now in effect and Cam is joining the OGIDP on a long-term basis so he can continue to work in this space. Cam and Paul are writing up a full case study on the public consultation process and outlining next steps such as increasing awareness in the sector and fine tuning operational aspects of implementation. Immediate benefits of this policy will be more integrated and seamless government services online and an increase in innovative and efficient ways for us to engage with government through privately built apps and interfaces.

According to Cam however, the full impacts of the policy will be seen when a strong community of sharing practice and trust between government agencies and the open source community is in place. A longer-term step towards this will be creating a ‘discovery portal’ to ensure that New Zealand web developers can easily find and share government OSS code and technical support. The dream is that OSS sharing becomes the normal or default practice in New Zealand and that we become a leading example of the potential for technology to drive open government and collaboration between government and industry.

Be a part of the next big policy win at OS//OS 2016

This story highlights the exciting potential for meeting of minds and breaking down of traditional boundaries between government and private sectors that can occur at OS//OS. The big question is—what other policy challenges could be solved at this year’s conference? If you have an idea or want to be a part of bringing the next big policy win to life—grab your ticket here: http://opensourceopensociety.com/


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