FOSS Government Policy/Policy Formulation Approach
While formulating a FOSS policy is not fundamentally different from creating other national policies, it is worth examining the different stages in the formulation process. Due to its unique nature, a FOSS policy potentially involves a larger segment of society than some of the more focused policies.
Motivations and Needs Assessment
The first step in the policy formulation process is clearly identifying the motives and needs for a FOSS policy. As FOSS solves certain problems in a more efficient manner, clearly articulated motivations are a must for implementing FOSS policies, especially if they are backed at the highest level of government. Specific motivations would greatly affect implementation strategies. For instance, if the motivation is to reduce high cost imports by using affordable ICT solutions, then strategies are more likely to emphasize converting existing infrastructure to FOSS. If enhancing local capacity is the need, then the emphasis would be on use of appropriate ICT solutions for education.
Once the basic needs and motivations have been established, an assessment of the existing environment has to be conducted to determine the suitability of FOSS policies and their specific benefits to the society as a whole. This involves taking a look at a variety of factors, including but not limited to:
- Existing ICT infrastructure.
- Existing human ICT capacity, both in the public sector and in the society as a whole.
- Education infrastructure and capabilities within the country.
- Existing and proposed national policies.
- Regional context.
Two of these factors deserve greater attention:
Existing and Proposed National Policies
FOSS policies may interact greatly with or be affected by other policies, depending on the actual strategies chosen to implement the policy. Some policies may in fact prevent the implementation of a FOSS policy. A detailed survey of national policies, laws and standards must be undertaken to ensure that a FOSS policy can peacefully coexist with broader socio-economic national objectives, after having made the necessary adjustments. In particular, a FOSS policy should not be separate from the national ICT policy or ICT4D strategy if it exists, as the likelihood of overlap is great. Other policies/strategies that can also significantly affect FOSS policy include education, intellectual property and international trade. The specifics of the more common cross-sectoral concerns are covered in a later section.
Most regions in the world today have varying degrees of active FOSS initiatives and policies in progress. An assessment of regional efforts is important to ensure that FOSS policies will work in the regional context as well as to identify the areas of cooperation or common interests. For example, countries in the Asia-Pacific region should be aware of a regional effort by China, Japan, and South Korea to produce a common, regionally localized and customized FOSS system  and utilize this in their own countries. Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Viet Nam, have strong FOSS initiatives or formal policies encouraging FOSS. In such a situation, a country that does not have FOSS capabilities would be at a serious disadvantage.
Other issues include regional trade requirements and interoperability standards. The European Union is mandating open standards in their inter-government communication and suggesting FOSS as a method for implementing this. On the other hand, existing inter-government systems in other regions may still require proprietary software and an overly strong FOSS policy would be impractical under such circumstances.
Establishing Goals and Targets
Once the benefits and suitability of a FOSS policy have been established, goals and targets of the policy need to be stated in a clear, measurable manner and linked with the larger goals of the nation. Merely saying “FOSS is good for the country and we desire an increase in FOSS usage in the country” is unlikely to produce concrete results.
Measurable targets should be identified, even if these targets may be adjusted later during the policy formulation process. Targets at this stage set the tone and pace of the policy to be formulated. A typical target is “converting 10 percent of civil service infrastructure to FOSS”. Other possible targets are “50 percent of all ICT graduates are proficient in FOSS” or “95 percent of private sector organizations are aware of the benefits of FOSS”.
|Policy Goals: Malaysia|
|The 2005 targets listed in Malaysia’s Master Plan for implementing OSS in the public sector are listed below. Details available at: http://opensource.mampu.gov.my/|
and teaching tools
source operating systems
Once tentative targets have been set for the FOSS policy, strategies to achieve the goals of the policy need to be formulated. FOSS policy level strategies unfortunately do not have a long history of development, testing and implementation. Policy-makers, therefore, will have to be especially careful with implementation and monitoring issues.
The regional survey mentioned earlier, may find many strategies being implemented regionally that can either be adopted as is, or modified to suit the local environment. However, these policies are relatively untested and policy makers should not restrict themselves to these options. A popular method of coming up with strategies involves brainstorming sessions.
Different parties can do brainstorming. Different countries have relied on ICT Ministry personnel, industry groups and even cross-sectoral working groups, expressly for this purpose. If an active FOSS community exists within the country, their opinions should be tapped as they are likely to have been promoting FOSS within the country for some time and would be aware of issues that policy-makers may not be familiar with.
After several rounds of brainstorming sessions, the strategies are evaluated, summarized and then compiled into a draft policy document ready for the next stage – the consultative process.
Stakeholder and Consultative Process
FOSS development is typically an inclusive and democratic process. Projects or organizations that operate in a secretive or exclusive manner usually fail in the FOSS environment. This makes it even more important for FOSS policies to undergo a stakeholder and consultative process to ensure that the views, needs and aspirations of all the stakeholders are fully considered. Without support from the FOSS community (including corporations, academic institutions and developers), few FOSS policies are likely to succeed.
Policy-makers may find that the FOSS community is more chaotic than most other stakeholders. There are few formal structures or organizations, no elected leaders, and a diverse array of opinions on any single matter. Discussions on mailing lists often include heated arguments and public disagreements. Yet, this movement has created software that matches and even surpasses the software created by the finest corporations in the world.
There are several different methods commonly used to consult with stakeholders. Policy-makers can implement one or all of the following:
- Round Tables
- Focus Groups
- Online Consultations
Round tables are gatherings (public or by invitation) of representatives of stakeholder groups. The FOSS community usually has no formal leader, there are usually individuals who are greatly respected and deferred to within the community. These individuals need to be identified and invited to attend round table sessions. Other affected stakeholders such as government ministries, educational institutes, civil society organizations and private sector representatives should also be included.
In the round table sessions valuable insights and suggestions can sometimes be generated and a sense of buy-in and ownership of the policy can be cultivated among the stakeholders. Networks of communication between FOSS practitioners and policy-makers can be forged. At times, the most valuable outcomes of these round tables are born during the breaks between sessions, rather than in the actual sessions themselves.
Round tables should be held regularly and the findings and recommendations of the sessions should be made public. Organizing round tables, however, can require much energy and resources, especially in a geographically diverse country.
While round tables cover a broad spectrum of the FOSS community and interests, focus groups tend to concentrate on narrower areas such as education, private sector or legal issues. The number of participants is smaller but they are focused on these specific fields. The discussions in these sessions, though narrower in scope, are often detailed and lengthier, tending to yield greater information.
Focus groups should be organized for the critical areas targeted by the policy, to ensure that the policy and implementation strategies are realistic, workable and have community support.
Online consultations leverage the power of the Internet to reach a wider audience and involve more stakeholders in the consultation process. Rather than meeting in person, participants communicate via mailing lists and discussion boards to cover all of the various aspects of the policy.
However, the policy steering committee should be aware and especially careful of certain issues with respect to online discussions. The most obvious issue is that the availability of Internet access within the country often limits the participants of the consultation to only a small subsection of the population. For this reason, online consultations should never be the only stakeholder consultative process employed. However, if the consultation is public, then an online consultation may tap into the worldwide FOSS community, which has valuable insights, past experiences and resources to contribute.
Another issue is how public the online consultation should be. Making the discussions fully public on a mailing list or bulletin board is true to the spirit of the FOSS community, but this can generate a large amount of “noise” on the discussion lists. Nor are all policy-makers comfortable with this. However, restricted online discussion, especially with many restrictions on participant behaviour, can discourage any meaningful input. A careful balance has to be found.
Policy-makers should expect some changes during the consultation process, to accommodate stakeholder concerns and new strategies suggested by participants. At times, even significant changes may have to be considered. In many cases, it may be necessary to go through several rounds of consultation to produce a policy that reflects the needs and concerns of all involved.
- Myoung, S. E., “Korea, China, Japan Start Open-Source Collaboration”, CNETAsia, 2 April 2004; available from http://asia.cnet.com/newstech/systems/0,39001153,39174180,00.htm
- Williams, P., “Europe Picks Penguin to Link Government IT”, VNUNet.com, 18 July 2003; available from http://web.archive.org/web/20030724183521/http://www.vnunet.com/News/1142411