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PS-OSS : A study about Public Sector involvement in Open Source software

by Nicolas Bossut last modified 2007-10-26 11:04

Public sector and Open Source Software (PS-OSS), a report commissioned by the EU Commission addresses the question : What would be the potential impact on the development of the Information Society if public organisations (administrations, research institutions, universities, agencies, public companies) were to release software fully owned by them under a Open Source licence? Is an amplification effect on the adoption and use of information society technologies to be expected?

Source : Public sector and Open source

Publishing software fully owned by public bodies as Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) could facilitate re-use, adaptation and modification of the software by other public organisations, as well as other actors. The free availability of public sector software could possibly result in a "multiplier effect", which if significant, could have an accelerating effect on the development and take-up of information society technologies.


Challenges and barriers for public bodies that are looking to use FLOSS and distribute their own
software as FLOSS are:

  • Public administrations wanting to develop, distribute or adapt FLOSS will need to build up a certain degree of technical capabilities, whether by employing skilled staff or by contracting external services. However, lack of support for the use of FLOSS does not appear to be an important problem.
  • With over 100 FLOSS licences in existence, special expertise is sometimes required to determine how a given piece of source code can be legally distributed. This is especially true when combining software from pieces distributed under different licences.
  • To develop software as FLOSS, a public administration's staff needs to master the appropriate skills. Besides programming knowledge, this includes both the management of a development project and its code base, and communication with other developers and the wider FLOSS community. A number of procedures have to be developed and put in place, e.g. for integrating feedback.
  • The challenges associated with developing and distributing FLOSS require a redistribution of tasks within the organisation's IT department. People who were previously tasked with maintenance or performing internal processes become responsible for communication with actors outside the PA, for providing content for websites and mailing lists, and for adapting processes to new technologies and needs.
  • Lack of prior experience with FLOSS is likely to be a barrier to using and releasing FLOSS software.


  • The formation of a pool of cost-efficient public sector software of potentially high quality.
  • Possibly significant cost savings through the reuse of software made available by other public bodies. Most cases studied had the perception that their costs had decreased through using FLOSS. But such savings may not be the top priority, especially when the decision to develop and release FLOSS is made with strategic objectives in mind. The externalisation of development costs plays a comparatively minor role.
  • Increased flexibility in software use, both through independence from vendors and from a deeper understanding of how the software works.
  • Since dealing with FLOSS induces public administrations to deal with questions of copyright, patents and trademarks, legal knowledge is often generated in institutions where it was not present before.
  • Increased interoperability, both within the administration's IT system and with citizens and enterprises, as FLOSS uses open standards and protocols. Exchanging data with other institutions becomes easier.


The study examined the impact the development and distribution of FLOSS by public bodies has on eGovernment services, the economy, and the information society.

As for the impact of FLOSS releases on the economy, neither the “releasers” nor the “non-releasers” expect a negative economic impact of public bodies releasing their own software as FLOSS. Quite to the contrary, there is some confidence that it might have some positive economic impact, if any.

However, our analysis of the case studies shows that local businesses and the local FLOSS community benefit from the general need of public administrations to adapt software to their specific needs, and these spill-over effects – though varying from case to case - are very important at the political level of each project.


Based on the analysis of our observations, the central conclusions of the study are:

  • The type of software predominantly developed by or for public bodies is neither general-
    purpose nor public sector specific software, but specialised software such as content
    management or work-flow systems, heavily customised to be of use to the public sector but
    possibly also useful to other organisations.
  • Legal issues did not prove to be a major barrier for public bodies to engage in FLOSS
    development projects. The present legal environment appears sufficient to enable public
    bodies to release their software as FLOSS.
  • Instead, we identified as the most important barrier a lack of IT professionals that are experienced in software development and / or FLOSS. The availability of skills is the bottleneck for the public sector to become capable of developing and distributing FLOSS.
  • While FLOSS-related skills – or rather the lack thereof – frequently are a barrier to developing FLOSS, those administrations who engaged in development reported an improvement of their skill base.