Is a Wind of Change Blowing Through the Quebec Government?


Is a Wind of Change Blowing Through the Quebec Government?
by Pierre-Paul Lemyre

Five years ago, I coordinated a series of meetings with IT managers within the Quebec Government. I met with senior administrators, business analysts, and software team leaders from all over the administration, ranging from the largest departments to small public corporations. The objective was to grasp their feelings toward free/libre open source software (F/LOSS) in general and, more specifically, to determine the most adequate F/LOSS licensing strategy for the government.

This project eventually resulted in the production of legal guidelines for the administration. In the notes I took during the meetings, were the following insightful quotes, which illustrate the the degree of enthusiasm towards F/LOSS at that time. One goes like this: “It is difficult to replace an existing solution that works – even if it is onerous – with a cheaper solution that contains several flaws, such as a lack of support.” Another one states that, “Open source solutions still need to prove themselves over the next few years.”

The private sector had a different point of view. Less than one year after those meetings took place, Savoir-Faire Linux, a Quebec firm providing support services for Linux, contested the decision of the Régie des rentes du Québec to sole source to Microsoft the replacement of the operating system and office suite for its desktops. The whole affair started with a friendly email exchange about the opportunity to open the procurement process to competitive bidding. It ended three years later with a declaratory decision of the Superior Court of Quebecstating that the Régie des rentes acted illegally and should have instead undertaken a public tender. Savoir-Faire Linux definitively made its point, but the contract with Microsoft was not canceled because so much time had elapsed since it had been granted.

Although the Savor-Faire Linux decision was rendered only a few months ago, it is pretty clear by now that the wind had stopped blowing against F/LOSS in Quebec City. Maybe the timing was beneficial as the judgment followed the announcement of the complete failure of a few high profile modernization projects in the public sector (see the CSST affair for instance). Maybe the simple fact that almost all businesses are now integrating some form of OSS also contributed. It fact, it is difficult to determine to what extent the government is now seeing the value of F/LOSS, but it is clear that the Savoir-Faire Linux decision created momentum for change.

Whatever the reason, by the end of 2010 the Quebec Government adopted a new policy on the governance and management of public information resources, specifying that from now on F/LOSS should be considered on the same basis as any other software and that guiding tools will be provided to this end. In order to enforce its new position, the government is asking public bodies to complete a feasibility study on the possibilities offered by F/LOSS for any information technology expense exceeding $25,000. This approach should at least have the benefit of bringing mature F/LOSS solutions to the attention of the decision makers.

Having to state in an official document that F/LOSS will be considered says a lot about the prevailing winds. This is not to say that F/LOSS is totally absent from the public infrastructure in Quebec. As anywhere else, a portion of the servers, network infrastructure, and mainframes runs on F/LOSS. However, in most cases these solutions were acquired outside of the regular procurement process and are not supported by any vendor. And when it comes to the desktops, F/LOSS is still nowhere to be found.

Yet, F/LOSS is growing in favour. I have been asked to update the guidelines I initially produced in 2007 to guide public servants in their management of F/LOSS licenses. The updated guide should be released shortly in conjunction with procedures for evaluating F/LOSS projects and another document addressing the measurement of the total cost of ownership of F/LOSS. In addition, a training curriculum has just been setup by the government for information technology managers interested in learning more about F/LOSS. I am curious to see how many participants will turn out at the session on licensing I am giving next June.

At this stage, it is difficult to say if all these initiatives will have any effect on the software procurement habits of the Quebec Government. But even if this opening to F/LOSS can be considered moderate at best, it is nonetheless an opening. We at Lexum will continue to knock at the door as often as possible. With time and persistence, we hope that F/LOSS will find its place within our public software infrastructure.