Friday, March 09, 2007

FOSS and e-Governance

MANILA--At first glance, it looks like a match made in heaven. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is all about community-developed software that is flexible, robust, and unhampered by onerous licensing restrictions. e-Governance is all about the use of information and communications technology to improve the way government delivers services to the people. So that begs the question: why isn't the self-confessed cash-strapped Philippine government making use of FOSS to enhance its processes?

That's the issue that's brought several hundred participants from government, NGOs, private sector, and the FOSS community to the 1st Philippine Conference on Free and Open Source and e-governance over March 7 and 8 in EDSA Shangri-La Hotel. The event seminar was the culminating event of a one-year project run by the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD), a non-profit organization devoted to promoting good governance.

Over the course of a year, the IPD, with the support of the European Union Philippine Delegation under its Small Projects Facilities, conducted pilot e-governance projects in ten LGUs across the country. These LGUs were: Roxas, El Nido, and Coron in Palawan; Daraga, Albay; Jagna, Bohol; San Jose de Buenavista, Antique; Guiuan, Eastern Samar; Iligan City; Digos City; and Davao City.

The projects covered market stall management, business permits and licensing, GIS for tax mapping, barangay business registry and city hospital management. The projects all made use of open source software like BSD, Linux, PHP, and PostgreSQL. All of them cost lest then P500,000 to implement. The bulk of the expenses went to hardware and programming services.

All the LGU officials -- councillors, city officers, and even mayors -- gave glowing reports on the progress and impact of the project in their cities and municipalities. Many expressed the hope for an extension of the grants so that they might pursue other e-government projects.

And there you have it: FOSS in e-government projects work; they're cost effective; and they've been met by LGU officials with warm welcome. So to reiterate the question: why isn't government adopting more FOSS applications to improve local processes?

The main reason, it seems, is the lack of awareness. Government, in particular at the LGU level, has traditionally shunned the implementation of IT. The reasons vary: there's the perception of high cost, perpetuated by the expensive offerings of big vendors; IT is placed at a lower priority than social projects (never mind that IT, properly applied, can improve the the delivery of social projects); and sometimes, IT is outright dismissed as irrelevant in government. As such, many of them are unaware of the transformative possibilities of IT.

On the other hand, the FOSS community has not done much work at promoting the application of their software to government. FOSS has traditionally been the domain of computer geeks, self-absorbed in their own technical pursuits and unwilling to be bothered by the concerns of mainstream society.

As a result, this gap has given big hardware and software vendors the opportunity to push their own agenda in government. Commercial vendors have always had their financial bottom line as their driving force. These corporate mechanisms have driven up the cost of e-governance into the unreachable millions lost in complex IT monstrosities. While large IT projects have their place, simple but effective FOSS alternatives do exist for the needs of LGUs.

So it's fallen to NGOs like IPD to bring the FOSS and government together to make headway into e-governance. It's a promising first step. LGUs have proven receptive to the idea of using FOSS in government; FOSS advocates in turn are beginning to find their social conscience and turn their skills towards solving their country's problems. A promising beginning, but still at its preliminary first steps.

Between the FOSS community and government, the large burden is on government to think of ways in which they can use IT. It requires a shift in thinking that takes LGUs out of their comfort zone but nevertheless redounds to more efficient processes. Several things must happen:

1) LGUs must snap out of their passive stance towards IT. This is a habit formed by years and years of commercial software vendors dictating the agenda. LGUs must first of all know where IT can benefit the business of governance; and if they do not, they must educate themselves.

2) LGUs must learn to tap the resources of their own local communities in deploying their IT solutions. For too long, LGUs have been dependent on the dictates of national government and corporate vendors for their IT support. But FOSS has managed to commoditize software to the extent that even within a small city like Dumaguete already has local homegrown skills that LGUs can and should utilize.

3) LGUs should learn to be self-reliant for their IT initiatives. Grants such as that provided by the EU are all well and good, but again it gives way to dependency that breeds passivity. LGUs can start implementing IT projects by using local resources; and they do not have to be big nor expensive.

4) LGUs should learn from the best practices of other LGUs in the country. While the priorities of LGUs may vary, there are common areas from which they can adopt proven workable solutions.

3 comments:

  1. FOSS in itself, the concept of open source software, is good. But the FOSS Bill authored by Casino is not going to become a beneficial piece of legislation. In its present form, it will in fact be detrimental to our IT industry, IMHO.

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  2. FOSS Bill is dead in the water because it missed the last congress. It wasn't perfect, but it got attention.

    I've already written about the FOSS bill in previous entries.

    But you know what? Read the current provisions for procurement and the Government IS Plan and you'll see that FOSS is already implicitly favored. Again, it's a matter of implementation.

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  3. I really have no problem with FOSS itself. If gov't prefers open-source software, well and good! I am, however, very much against any legislation that is prejudiced or misinformed. That is my only point.

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