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Getting Open Source Software and Open Standards into the Government of Canada

For the past 2 years and 5 months, I have been on secondment at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) in the GCTools team, currently named the Digital Enablement Division. My first task was to organize the GCTools Hackathon which took place in April 2017. See my other blog for more details about my work with The GCTools.

Beyond my work on the GCTools, I think I have been able to make a difference for the use of open source software and open standards in the GC. The GCTools team was the perfect place to work with all the other TBS office of the chief information officer (CIO) employees! It was also the perfect time to be at TBS and influence the GC’s IM/IT (digital) direction, with the arrival of a new CIO, Alex Benay. Thanks to Chris Allison for giving me the opportunity to do this work at TBS!

I don’t want to rewrite everything I have done in detail, because they can be found in previous blogs, the Introduction to the Open First Whitepaper, and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) blog. But I made a list with links.. Not bad.

* Not directly responsible but I contributed to the content or organization

The first Open Whitepaper is currently in the final stages of approvals and should be published soon (I hope). TBS now has a team (Guillaume Charest) working on the open source software file. When I arrived, there was no one officially. I leave him a lot of pressure to continue the necessary work to clarify the legal and procurement side. Of course I’m not going to disappear, I’m simply going back to Canadian Heritage and I’m going to continue to be active in the community.

Update: In January 2020, TBS published the Open Frist Whitepaper and the Guides for Using Open Source Software, Publishing Open Source Code and Contributing to Open Source Software.

An active community

There has always been a community of open source software users in the GC who promote these solutions in their respective departments. I encourage you to continue, even if sometimes it’s discouraging! Point to the Directives and Guidance and say that this is the direction that TBS wants for the whole GC.

I would also like to draw attention to the fact that the discussions we held at the CSPS were organized by the community, without the official support of a department. I was in a café in Ottawa, with Guillaume and Gabriel Cossette, and we just decided that we were going to do it, find people interested in helping us with micro-missions and we were on our way. Of course I used my position at TBS to ask the CTO if he wanted to be part of the discussion and for the CIO to share the invitation with the other CIOs. But now I know we could have done that anyway.

So join the discussions on GCconnex, GCcollab and GCmessage, make presentations, get involved in the architecture review board in your department and continue to promote open standards and open source software to the GC!

Open standards

Much emphasis has been placed on open source software (publication and use) in the Directive on the Management of IT, but not as much on open standards. I still think there is some confusion about defining open standards. These are data or information formats (files, web pages, API, etc.) and communication protocols. Not standards on things that are open in general.

Through discussions with many people and even the experiences of other public administrations, I realized that the best way to favor the use of open source software is through the adoption of open standards. I hope that open standards are promoted more in the GC’s Digital Policy and Data Strategy.

Open resource exchange

One of my projects that began to grow towards the end of my mandate at TBS is the Open Resource Exchange. During the initial writing of the Open First Whitepaper, there was a need to list the GC’s open source software projects as well as open source software used by the GC. A kind of Code.Gov and more for Canada. Not long after creating the initial prototype, support for all Canadian governments (federal, provincial and municipal) was added. I didn’t really know if it was the right solution, but that’s what we had at the moment. Derek Alton, my colleague on the strategic partnership team, was working on the Municipal Innovation Pilot Project to encourage collaboration with municipalities. As a result, Montreal, Sarnia and other cities have come together to move the project forward. Since the beginning of January 2019, I have been working with the City of Montreal on the development of the platform. I don’t yet know what role I will be able to continue to play in this project, but I hope that development will move forward from TBS and elsewhere.

Let’s do it for real!

I am happy to have a Directive in favour of open source software and open standards but I don’t think that that is a done deal. There will be resistance within the GC itself for such a fundamental change. There will also be resistance from our current software suppliers if they are not willing to adapt and support us in the use of open source software and open standards.

Canada is certainly not the first country to adopt a policy that favours the use of open source software, but I believe we have a real opportunity to become one of the world leaders. Most of the countries often cited as examples for the adoption of open source software are not as advanced as one might think in their use of open source software. The Digital 9 (D9), of which Canada is a member, includes other countries that are committed to using more open source software. Canada should make the use of open standards and open source software the foundation of its Digital Policy. Open standards and open source software represent a real change in organizational culture, procurement and transparency for the GC.