debate about Free software for the ACT Government

Doug Palmer doug at
Wed Apr 24 21:32:14 EST 2002

On 2002.04.23 22:38 Richard Cottrill wrote:
> I agree really. I think the case for "free licence == free" has some
> pretty
> serious problems. I'm trying to suggest that there's more benefit for
> Canberra if it becomes an early adopter (of enterprise-wide Linux) and
> gains
> the benefit of helping to develop its own software. I'd hope that the
> discussion about free vs. Microsoft (as too often the debate seems to
> become - and this one has started at) gains some wider breadth than the
> usual half-baked theories about TCO, ROI, and so many other TLAs. In any
> case none of the people involved in the debate should forget that the
> Government is not a profit making enterprise - it provides services to
> the
> citizens.

The thing is, a lot of those government services are things like parks and 
gardens, libraries, social services and such-like. These services use 
software to achieve their aims. Unless the software they adopt lowers the 
TCO, then the higher TCO comes out of the budget for the services that 
they're supposed to provide -- assuming that there's no pot of gold to 
subsidise this plan, which I suspect not. So irrespective of whether 
government is profit making or not, TCO is an issue.

The way I see it, there are a few possibilities:

The TCO of free software is considerably less than that of proprietary 
software and bells ring, fauns gambol in the streets and RMS is seen 
ascending on a golden cloud. In this case, the use of free software is 
basically self-justifying.

The TCO of free software is considerably more than that of proprietary 
software. In this case, there are two problems, one ethical and one 
political. The ethical one is simply that imposing the use of free 
software in this case is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul and, if the 
intention is to use it to help a free software industry in Canberra, 
essentially robbing the community of other services in order to support a 
speculative commercial venture. The political one is that I can't imagine 
a worse advert for free software than a politically imposed strategy that 
would have budgets for what people are supposed to be doing cut; every 
non-IT person in the government would hate its guts.

The two are about equal. In this case, there's a reasonable argument for 
"if it ain't broke, don't fix it"; people want to get on with what they 
are doing, not cope with the next great leap forward. However, if there's 
a chance for spin-off benefits, it might be worth a try.

Doug Palmer   doug at

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