The Dutch national government is proceeding with its new implementation of 'GOUD' (Gold), its new plan for a 'standardized desktop' for ministries and other governmental institutions. After the much publicized new Dutch National IT-policy of last autumn this might sound wonderful. It's not.
The problem with the 'standardized desktop' is that it uses very few real standards. Instead it uses products and pretends they are standards. The difference between 'standards' and the idea of 'standards products' is widely misunderstood, often confused and this is where projects such as 'GOUD' go off in troublesome directions.
Standards are things like Open Document Format, HTML (the programming language of web pages), LDAP (a protocol for defining access-control on a network) or TCP/IP (the low-level network protocol of the Internet). What all these things share is that they are not owned by a single entity. They are a formalized form of knowledge about how to achieve certain technical objectives. This knowledge can be used by programmers to build tools that actually do these things for us. This means that there will be many different, competing, implementations of the standards that can inter-operate. This diversity fosters a working market and ups the quality while lowering the price (often down to zero).
'Standard products' on the other hand are, by definition, products and generally owned by private corporations with a profit motive. Standardizing on a product is essentially creating a mono-culture of one type of product, making yourself totally dependent on the vendor of that product. In the case of desktop computers this is extra problematic because there exists a de facto monopoly in this market. Creating a mono-culture in a monopolized market actually re-enforces the monopoly, the exact opposite of the aims of the adopted policy plan.
The Dutch government (or any other for that matter) should not work towards a 'standard desktop' but towards open desktop standards. This is precisely what the Dutch parliament unanimously requested from the government in 2002. Open standards, such as the ones mentioned above, allow computers of many different types and the people using them to communicate.
The Internet is a network of billions of computing devices made by thousands of different vendors and these can all communicate through open standards. Because of this I can e-mail other people without having to know anything about the computer they use. As long as we all agree to adhere to the standards information sharing is possible with a variety of systems and products. Open standards make this possible and should be the cornerstone of any governmental IT-architecture.
I've had many conversations with civil servants on this issue over the years and I conclude from these that the vast majority of them have no conceptual understanding of the difference between (the use of) standards and product mono-culture. In 2005 I was speaking at the Ministry of the Interior to a civil servant who enthusiastically talked about the 'standard' desktop they were developing for the entire government (350.000 desktop in the Netherlands). When I asked him what standards they were using he responded with a list of products: 'this version of an operating system, that version of a word processor', and so on. I tried not to cry. I really did.
In the 'Gold'-documentation (yes, the project name is a gift to punsters) the same way of thinking is pervasive; in order to collaborate, all civil servants need to use the exact same software products. I call bullshit. One of the primary recommendations of a counter-expertise report was to replace product-specific standards by open standards. This would enable interoperability with a variety of systems in the future and thus free the government of its dependence on a single vendor. This remains one of the primary stated goals of the national policy set by the government and applauded by parliament.
I can imagine how 15 years of vendor-lock-in-by-standards would lead people to believe computer systems can only share data if they are all supplied by the same vendor. This is however not a law of nature but a symptom of a badly functioning market. It is a problem to be solved by making a policy plan and sticking to it. The national action plan obliges the government to actively seek solutions to the problems of interoperability by the mandatory use of open standards.
In a letter to parliament the responsible minister for the 'Gold' plan claims two things:
1. With the new 'standard' desktop civil servants will be able to collaborate better. It is not clear why they cannot collaborate now. Don't they all have e-mail and a phone? What 'collaboration' and 'better' means in this context is never defined so it's kind of hard to verify this claim.
2. By implementing a mono-culture of Gold PC's the cost of systems maintenance and administration will be reduced to a level that will compensate the cost of procuring and implementing them in the first place. Not that this claim requires a detailed understanding of the existing level of cost.
MPs I work with will be seeking freedom-of-information acces to all relevant documents pertaining to this project from 2006 onwards. I'm looking forward to being proven wrong but I'm not holding my breath.