This story was originally published in the article for the Open Source Observatory (OSOR), a European Commission’s project aiming at providing trustworthy FOSS expertise and information, as well as connecting European Public Administrations with other relevant stakeholders. OFE is a regular contributor to the Observatory.
OSPOs (Open Source Programme Offices) are becoming the norm in private sector companies working with software and the public sector is catching up. Why do governments create OSPOs now and what are they hoping to achieve?
A central unit in charge of Open Source software is not new in government. Yet, if one would try to find an OSPO in a given government, one would find only a few, more recent creations. The OSPO term is relatively new in the context of governments and historically an organisation with a similar, yet not identical, purpose would be called an Open Source competence centre.
Many governments in Europe and the world have, or have had, an Open Source competence centre. Examples are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil and South Korea. Competence centres typically have a limited scope and are focused internally. Among their responsibilities count legal compliance work on using and integrating Open Source software components and providing helpdesk services and guidance toward the usage of Open Source within the organisation.
Yet, as Open Source has become ubiquitous in software, so is the role of Open Source in organisations evolving. An OSPO in the public sector should contribute to the larger organisational policy goals, including privacy, security, trust, collaboration and participation.
When a government decides to create an OSPO, it can be seen as a new phase of ambition and understanding of the power of Open Source for a government organisation.
Of course, OSPOs still take on the traditional role of the competence center, identifying key software to be integrated and maintained, but it also adds to it an external component of networking with other OSPOs, of building communities around priority software.
OSPOs are about more than code. An OSPO aims to evolve the culture of the organisation toward open collaboration and innovation, taking from the principles and methodologies of Open Source software development. An OSPO should be a tool to transform the organisation.
Especially public sector institutions often find cross-department collaboration difficult to implement. With digitalisation today being a horizontal, cross-cutting issue, touching all processes, rules and regulations, an open approach to digitalisation thus shapes the way an organisation also works internally.
The European Commission has taken a pioneering step among governments and embarked on this journey in November 2020. It recognised the OSPO’s role in “building a world-class public service”, in its 2020-2023 Open Source Strategy, calling the Open Source Programme Office “the pivotal point”. But this is happening also elsewhere. The City of Paris and Baltimore are in the process of launching their own OSPOs.
More and more public sector organisations are realising the value of an Open Source Programme Office to not only achieve their digital policy goals but also to transform their organisations toward achieving these goals.