Friday, 12 July 2013

European Commission guide to better practices in public procurement of ICT technologies

The week before last the EuropeanCommission issued a Communication “Against lock-in: building open ICT systems by making better use of standards in public procurement”. (COM(2013) 455 - together with SWD(2013) 224). This results from Digital Agenda Action Item 23. The objective is to provide guidance on ICT procurement for better procurement by putting more stress on standards and achieving more openness with open ICT infrastructures in public administrations. And this Communication complements a number of other Commission initiatives and guides, above all the European Interoperability Framework. But it also refers to how the new EU Regulation on Standardisation (1025/2012) can help to make use of best-of-breed global ICT standards.

I could be very brief by saying the guide is extremely good. Please read it – it's available on the Commission web site. And public authorities: please make use of it. The open way which is standards based is the better way for increasing choice, flexibility and allowing the uptake of innovative new technologies.

The Communication was presented alongwith the statement that the use of “Open standards would save public sector €1 billion a year”. Personally, I am always cautious with such savings statements. But for sure: Open Standards are a way to achieve cost effectiveness, reduce exit costs for technologies and stifle competition and enable greater choice.

The key aspect, to avoid lock-in, is in the focus of the documents:
“Using ICT systems based on standards instead of proprietary technology will help to open up restrictive public procurement practices, because standards make essential knowledge about a system available to anyone, implying that other potential suppliers could maintain or evolve the system under more competitive terms and conditions.” (Communication, p. 4)
The Guide, published as a Staff Working Document (SWD), is composed to give practical advice on how to proceed for analysis in decision making when taking procurement decisions around ICT. It is clearly structured – and I would add worth reading and inspiring also for non-procurers. It covers the different steps from strategy building to long term budgetary planning. All in all a comprehensive approach with high practical relevance.

The benefits of standards is a key aspect addressed. Or better: procurers are guided towards putting a strong focus on standards, building expertise around standards and standardisation and how to assess what is required to meet their needs. And the Guide is not shy in clearly stating that “FRAND licenses create barriers for Open Source projects to implement the technical specification” (Guide, p. 12), which needs to be considered in the context of software interoperability standards.

All in all two very good and useful documents from the Commission. Some people in their reactions over the last two weeks criticised that the Commission is not going far enough. E.g. that practical interoperability is hampered because the Commission does not act accordingly, e.g. when it comes to document formats. While this may be correct, it is more an issue of the implementation of the Guide than of the Guide as such. And this is also my wish: that the Guide may be promoted and find many followers in public procurement. Following the Guide will promote interoperability and will push the implementation of open ICT ecosystems – with all benefits regarding freedom of choice, encouraging competition and innovation, and driving the uptake of new ICT technologies in the European public sector.