What can governmental OSPOs learn from the private sector ones?

28 February 2021

Author: Paula Grzegorzewska

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.

The construct of an Open Source Programme Office (OSPO) was born in the private sector where it has been used to support organisations in achieving their goals for years by streamlining their software strategies around open development. Thus, we decided to showcase similarities and differences between private and public sector OSPOs.

Back in October 2020, the European Commission created its Open Source Program Office, as set out in the Commission’s new Open Source Strategy. We already wrote about the context of this move and the reason why governments are looking into this concept as a part of their digital strategies.

Many businesses noticed that using and contributing to Open Source is not a choice anymore, but has become a necessity. In this regard, it is a challenge to seamlessly adopt the Open Source culture, as this ecosystem has its own methodologies, processes, and assumptions guiding its participants.

Organisations in the age of rapid digital transformation have to tie their usual ways of working with the more collaborative Open Source practices. Such a shift rarely happens in the void and it needs understanding and guidance, proliferating across organisations’ activities and goals. Openness culture has to be taken upstream and could possibly transform processes that have been in an organisation for years, whether it would be a private or a public sector one.

Private sector OSPOs have a variety of responsibilities, diversified across sectors, sizes and characters of businesses, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for all organisations. An OSPO organises all activities related to use, distribution and contributions to Open Source, which can comprise: developing collaborations with foundations/organisations and OSS communities, ensuring legal compliance, developing and implementing OSS strategies, launching new projects, providing training, providing guidance to employees on how they could engage in OSS activities and others. Such a unit in an organisation can help mitigate risks and use opportunities that Open Source brings, and dozens of companies have used an OSPO to fully participate in a digital transformation that requires them to be more open.

For example, as the latest Linux Foundation survey of Open Source contributors has shown, around three quarters of OSS contributors are providing their OSS contributions during their paid working time. However, over 20% are not aware of their firms’ policy regarding OSS contributions or say that such policies are unclear. This lack of clear guidelines can result in a lower number of contributions and less time spent on contributing, which can possibly lead to insecurities of the code, insufficient use of available resources, and overall unsatisfactory use of software capabilities. An OSPO, having as its main activity to implement and inform about the organisations’ Open Source strategy and policies, can reduce these risks, which in turn can encourage contributions, distribution and use of Open Source resources in a more efficient manner and promote further developments.

While the organisational structures, practices and goals are vastly different in the public sector, a governmental OSPO could have several similarities to those of the private sector and it could help the public sector in achieving its objectives. Several public sector organisations are currently testing the concept and see an OSPO as a tool for more transparent and innovative software management practices.

For example, several governments around the world introduced various Open Source policies on a national or a regional level in the last decade, but few of these policies have been highly successful in supporting OSS. The level of prescriptiveness or the exact legal instrument of an Open Source policy seem to be less crucial for reaping benefits of Open Source than their enforcement and maintenance in a more horizontal, strategic manner coupled with ensuring its implementation in a daily practice of public sector institutions. An engaged, structured organisational unit can steer the enforcement of any Open Source policies and ensure that they are matching organisation’s goals and practices. Open Source has been around for a long time in both private and public sectors, but as many businesses noticed – only structuring, supporting and developing Open Source resources and processes can bring those benefits to an organisation.

While the private sector would not always see close collaboration with other businesses in the same sector as potentially beneficial, governments and public institutions already cooperate on countless initiatives which strengthens their quest to provide their citizens with the best services and quality of life. As we see in several domains of public sector’s work, standardised, transparent and collective approach to digital innovation can bring great benefits, and Open Source can be one of them.

National OSPOs could on one hand be responsible for coordinating nation-wide efforts on Open Source in different domains and on the other hand, engage in external relations with other countries’ OSPOs and civil society organisations, foundations, Open Source networks and other OSS participants. They could also collaborate with municipal and regional offices in order to support scaling up OSS solutions and to foster local implementation. Public sector’s Open Source Program Offices could work together to gather, use, develop and distribute resources, support communities and make open innovation in the public sector more robust and sustainable.