Thursday, 18 November 2010

Open Standards for eGovernance

For more than half a decade Europe has played a leading role globally in defining framework conditions for eGovernment services provision. The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) version 1.0 was a breakthrough document in this respect. Essentially, it set three clear directions:

  1. Openness must be a key principle in eGovernance;
  2. eGovernment services must be built on Open Standards and the term Open Standards was clearly defined;
  3. Open Source needs to be considered on equal footing with proprietary offerings.

These rules and directions should not come as a surprise to anyone. eGovernance and eGovernment services are – bluntly speaking – about the internet, about offering citizens and businesses information and services over the internet. Openness governs the internet and the web and Open Standards are at the core of it. Industry has broadly agreed on the respective open conditions in the relevant global standards bodies such as W3C, IETF or OASIS that deliver Open Standards.

The EIF 1.0 has had a huge positive effect. It triggered the development of National Interoperability Frameworks in the EU Member States following the basic directions of the EIF regarding openness and interoperability. And EIF 1.0 influenced other countries and regions outside the EU. They followed Europe's leadership in developing open frameworks. In this respect, EIF 1.0 has been a very successful document with strong global impact.

Now last week India adopted its “Policy on Open Standards for eGovernment”. It follows the same principles as the EIF 1.0. And the Indian Policy also gives a clear definition of the characteristics of an Open Standard:

“An Identified Standard will qualify as an “Open Standard”, if it meets the following criteria:
4.1.1 Specification document of the Identified Standard shall be available with or without a nominal fee.
4.1.2 The Patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard shall be made available on a Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the Standard.
4.1.3 Identified Standard shall be adopted and maintained by a not-for-profit organization, wherein all stakeholders can opt to participate in a transparent, collaborative and consensual manner.
4.1.4 Identified Standard shall be recursively open as far as possible.
4.1.5 Identified Standard shall have technology-neutral specification.
4.1.6 Identified Standard shall be capable of localization support, where applicable, for all Indian official Languages for all applicable domains.” (p. 2)

In addition, the Indian Policy contains some provisions in case Open Standards are not available for a given purpose so that, for instance, “RAND-based” standards can be used for some time. This is pretty reasonable; yet, the default is for Open Standards.

I very much like the clarity, simplicity and the straight-forward approach of the Indian Policy. It provides a proper framework and thus creates a clear basis for everyone to operate on. Like with the EIF 1.0 this framework builds on the common practice of the internet and the world wide web and the Open Standards used there. And its scope is clearly on eGovernment services. Nobody needs to be surprised by it; nobody needs to be afraid of it.

Reading this Indian Policy, though, makes me wonder once again what the debate about the revision of the EIF that has been ongoing for almost 3 years is actually about. The apparent attempts to delete the clear commitment to openness from a revised EIF seem to be more than anachronistic looking both at National Interoperability Frameworks and at other regions in the world like India but also looking at the common practice applied in the context of the world wide web. In effect, Europe blocks itself from moving ahead in implementing eGovernment solutions and delivering interoperable eGovernment services to the citizens and businesses in Europe. And we witness how other regions pass by following the very principles that EIF 1.0 had laid down have a dozen years ago.

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