Doctor, doctor …

<webwereld column>

Actieplan Heemskerk

A MP stumbles, coughing, into the doctor’s surgery. There is blood pouring from the ears and nose and left eye. “Doctor, doctor, I’ve just had a bad fall and I think I’ve broken my wrist” gasps the MP. The doctor has a look and briefly feels the pulse. “Does that hurt?” “A little bit” mumbles the MP. “I don’t think it’s that bad” says the doctor. Unfortunately I can’t check it today as the digital X-ray machine is broken”. The MP is swaying back and forth. “It’s probably just a bruise, the nurse will give you a sling. Take it easy for a couple of days and come back if it’s still painful.”  The MP staggers out of the surgery, still bleeding from the ears, nose and eye. The doctor is already focused on the file of the next patient, because doctors are very busy.

The process described above resembles the way the Court of Audit went about answering MPs questions about our national IT strategy. The MPs asking those questions were not experts and the Court provided simplistic answers without providing any context or stopping to consider whether the symptoms might be part of a broader problem. The newly-published report failed to respond  even to the superficial questions and, moreover, based its answers on minimal data.  Which is a disgrace, as it is precisely the role of the Court to delve into the deeper issues.

Instead of focusing on the 88 million euros spent on licence fees (less than 1% of the total annual licence expenditure), the Court could and should have explored why a different approach can work in other European countries, but fails in the Netherlands. Is this country really so different from Finland, Germany, France or Spain? As their colleagues in the Central Planning Bureau had done in 2009, the Court could have produced its own qualitative analysis of the macro-economic effects of large-scale, open source implementations. This as a viable alternative to  annual imports totalling of more than 8 billion, primarily from the USA. The macro-economic demand alone is relevant since the VAT and profit tax of this trade ends up predominantly in the Irish treasury, because of inter-EU trade regulations.  (I ‘m not necessarily against bailing out Ireland but this can surely be done more efficiently). Also the figures of the 2004 SEO study are still current enough to be indicative for order of magnitude estimates.

As one of the ‘experts’ consulted by the Court, I am very disappointed by the minimalist approach it took. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, in a previous report, the Court had also dithered, even after they had determined the government really had no insight whatsoever into its own IT spending. It is beyond me why a subject such as IT, where so many aspects can go so terribly wrong, is not more thoroughly and strategically overseen. In my written input to the Court last year I proposed several clear ways to frame the fundamental questions. For those who, like doctors, are very busy here is a summary:

Dear MPs, the Netherlands is a modern western country with access to the same knowledge, technology and IT budgets as Germany, France, Spain and Finland. Today all these countries  have already achieved widespread adoption of open source and open standards in government. The work of the Dutch government is also very similar to these countries – certainly generic aspects such as office automation. So, eight years after the original and unanimous vote by parliament, surely the only reason that the Netherlands cannot implement this policy is our administrative culture and our Atlanticist political orientation. There is certainly no fundamental reason why the results of the other countries I mentioned cannot be replicated in the Netherlands, particularly because those same countries have already done all the preliminary research for us. But in recent years potential obstacles for migration have been elevated to norms, rather than being correctly identified merely as part of a problem to be solved.

Parliament should no longer accept high dependence on a supplier being invoked as an excuse for not making progress towards becoming less dependent on that supplier (as the government did in response to parliamentary questions in in 2004, 2006 and 2008). The high dependency is the problem that must be solved, not an immutable law of nature where IT departments are the powerless victims.

Parliament should no longer accept the acknowledged lack of technical and organisational expertise of the 60,000 government IT professionals (and its suppliers) as a valid excuse for the lack of progress. It is implausible that the Dutch state cannot find the requisite skills to replicate the results of its European neighbours. Any IT staff and management found lacking in the necessary skills to carry out the very reasonable requests from parliament should be retrained  or replaced. Incompetence is grounds for dismissal, not a valid excuse to refuse to do the work.

Of course there will be problems in unravelling this gigantic Gordian knot, created by decades of accumulated proprietary software. But the most frequently cited excuses for not making a start with OSS and OS are similar to those used by asbestos manufacturers: "yes, but it is handy", "we have been using it for so long", "we are comfortable with it", "we know nothing else". All factually correct statements, of course, but certainly not valid excuses to prevent us from finding an alternative solution.

If the government had started making these changes way back in 2002, as parliament voted to do, the cutbacks we’re now suffering in education and health care would have been more than covered.

On this issue, the Netherlands seems  to have been reduced to providing the frightening role for the rest of Europe on “how not to do it….”. Too bad.