The European Commission sounds the alarm about the technological lock-in of public administrations... but does not draw the logical conclusions.

On 25 June 2013, the European Commission published its recommendations on "Building open ICT systems by making better use of standards in public procurement - against lock-in". In spite of the alarming title ("Against Lock-in: building open ICT systems by making better use of standards in public procurement") and very sound stated goals, April regrets that open standards are not mentioned anywhere in these documents.

These documents are the result of a long-standing strategy of the European Commission, the Digital Agenda for Europe. Its stated goals are to improve public ICT procurement practices by favouring interoperability. This is supposed to alleviate a number of difficulties, among which:

  • technological dependence on one single vendor
  • lack of interoperability in the interaction with users and other administrations
  • astronomical yearly spending by administrations, without any way out (high cost of technological exit)
  • lack of competition in the market

At last, the European Commission becomes aware of the race to the bottom that the public entities have been caught into for many years — in short, the result of passive European policies in this area, that numerous non-profit organisations have been denouncing for years1.

While April supports the stated goals as well as the methodology (an inventory of good practices in the various European countries), it regrets that the advocated methods are not more open, clear and measuring up to the issues at stake. It is quite telling that the text does not mention open standards —apart from examples in other countries— despite explaining that the use of closed standards is obstructing competition. By refusing to draw the logical conclusions from its own analyses, the Commission thus does not put forth an effective policy in favour of innovation and competition.

However, this document is not entirely negative: recognising the dangers of technological lock-in and dependence on a unique vendor and/or publisher is a first step. This shows a rising awareness of the issues and dangers that are inherent to closed standards. But the Commission simply lists the difficulties that the European public administrations are facing, and scratches the surface of problems while remaining silent on the practical means to overcome them. Yet, the Commission holds the key to technological independence for European administrations. Even so, the self-evident solution (the use of Free Software to ensure technological independence) is not mentioned either. The Commission is missing an opportunity to initiate a concrete and effective policy.

In this context, the presence of clear warnings about the wording of calls for tenders, as well as about the importance of concentrating on technical issues in the tender notices rather than citing trademarks or particular technologies, can be seen as good news. Indeed, the Commission reminds public administrations to comply with the directive: reference to a trademark in a tender notice can only be exceptional and absolutely needs to be followed by the words “or equivalent”. Moreover, the European Commission rightly emphasises that refering to a trademark within calls for tenders de facto reduces the level of competition in that market, a lack of competition with detrimental consequences: market monopolisation and inability of administrations to negotiate prices, resulting in excess spending estimated at over one billion euros per annum.

Finally, the publication of a guide for public administrations demonstrates good intentions, namely a will to help public servants with their choice of standards while stressing the need to take long-term issues into account. It remains that the guide lacks clarity in this respect and that open standards are again completely left out of the picture.

  • 1. See the reports of Open Forum Europe, for instance the 2012 report which states again that technical specifications in tender notices must ensure equal access to all the potential tenderers.