European IT and telecom ministers called for the introduction of open standards and interoperability in government procurement of IT, sparking applause from the industry. The ministers' statement, part of a broader declaration concerning Europe's digital agenda, comes as the European Commission tries to draw up a framework for how governments should in the future procure software that runs their online public services.
Public sector IT procurement represents a massive chunk of the overall IT market in Europe. Historically, only the largest software vendors have been considered by city, local, regional and national government departments. As a result, citizens are forced to use software programs compatible with those companies' offerings when performing administrative tasks such as submitting tax returns, renewing their ID cards or applying for a dog license online.
One part of the Commission, led by Commissioner Neelie Kroes, is pushing hard to open up the public procurement market, and to break the stranglehold of vendors of proprietary software, including Microsoft. Meanwhile, another part of the EU executive, responsible mainly for internal IT procurement, is busy drafting guidelines dubbed the European Interoperability Framework (EIF).
But advocates for open and interoperable computing claim that the EIF has been watered down due to intense lobbying by the proprietary software makers, to such an extent that the document will have no impact on the market.
The EIF is important because it will serve as a "metaframework" for all national guidelines on how public offices should purchase information and communication technology (ICT) services.
The declaration by ministers should strengthen Kroes' hand, as she prepares to publish her game plan for Europe's digital agenda next month. Government departments across the E.U. should "embed innovation and cost effectiveness into eGovernment through the systematic promotion of open standards and interoperable systems," the ministers said in their declaration.
Kroes welcomed the statement, describing it as "a milestone, a crucial building block for a truly European Digital Agenda." "We do not seek to dictate the design and scale and direction of future ICT. But we are determined to create a new set of conditions for ICTs and the Internet ecosystem of the future," she said.
Trade groups were quick to praise the declaration too. "Europe will be best served if it spends less time looking backwards on preserving the status quo and current business practice, and more time on encouraging new opportunity and innovation", said Graham Taylor, CEO of the Open Forum Europe (OFE), a trade group that ranks Google, IBM and Oracle among its members.
"We hope Commissioner Kroes builds on this encouraging declaration in her digital agenda, with policies that will promote open standards for government, so citizens face no artificial bars in getting information," said Thomas Vinje, counsel and spokesman for the European committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS).
Meanwhile, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade group that includes Microsoft among its members, also welcomed the ministers' declaration. Francisco Mingorance, its senior director of government relations, described the declaration in a statement as "well balanced", adding that it "rises above the sterile ideology of the past on open vs proprietary software and services."
"The declaration recognizes the new paradigms in the technology sector," Mingorance said. The BSA has lobbied hard to tone down references to open standards and interoperability in the EIF document, which is due to be finalised by this summer after nearly two years' drafting and re-drafting.
Its lobbying has been very successful. For example, a draft of the EIF from last year stated that openness in e-government software procurement "leads to considerable gains in efficiency." In a later draft written in March this year it stated that openness "may lead to gains in efficiency, taking due account of coverage of functional needs, maturity and market support."
First drafts of the EIF from 2008 overtly called for open standards in public procurement. None of the recent copies mention open standards anywhere. Similar lobbying efforts are under way concerning Kroes' much-anticipated Digital Agenda due to be made public in late May.
OFE said it hopes that the approach championed by Kroes and endorsed by the IT and telecom ministers Monday will prevail, but it added that this is not certain.
The declaration, dubbed the Granada Declaration after the Spanish city where the ministers were supposed to hold their meeting, was agreed by video conference in the end due to the disruption of transport links because of volcano ash in the atmosphere.
In addition to calling for open standards in public procurement it also called for renewed efforts to make the Internet faster in Europe, to beef up trust and security online by raising data protection and privacy standards, and to break down barriers to e-commerce between EU member states.