Open source for public authorities and administrations

Open Source für Behörden und Verwaltungen

Free code for German authorities? Of course!With open source software to digital sovereignty

The digitization of society is advancing and is not stopping at German offices and authorities. But digital processes, which have long been standard in many commercial enterprises, often lag far behind in public administration. The current pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the failures in digitization – you can’t fight a global crisis with a fax machine and paper applications. In an international comparison, Germany has slipped from 6th to 14th place in e-government, as other countries are simply much faster at implementation (Digital Readiness Index, as of 2020). Open source software (OSS) offers an opportunity to catch up here and has far more advantages than just being free.

In the course of digitization, in addition to processes, the question also arises as to which solutions public institutions would like to rely on in the future. On the tried-and-tested applications of the large digital companies, as is common in the free economy, or on open source solutions that are accessible to everyone and can be adapted as desired? The aspirations of the individual authorities and administrations are quite different, and so in the past there were also public institutions that once used open source, then switched to commercial solutions, and then switched back to OSS, or vice versa.

In the meantime, however, the trend among German public authorities is clearly moving in the direction of open source. The use of freely accessible solutions not only brings some advantages, it is also politically desired. The federal government primarily wants to reduce its dependence on proprietary applications, but also save on licensing costs.

Logo OSB AllianceThere are also numerous initiatives such as the Open Source Business Alliance (OSB) or Public Money, public Code, which advocate, among other things, that software applications that are tax-funded should in principle be open source. After all, if the code is public, the data usage is also transparent, whereas with private solution providers, no one knows what happens behind closed doors. Therefore, the use of open source is also in the public interest.

Public Money - Public Code

Incidentally, the Onlinezugangsgesetz (OZG), which obliges the federal, state and local governments to offer hundreds of administrative services digitally by 2022, ensures that the process of digitization is progressing. The path to e-government is therefore not just a voluntary exercise for greater citizen proximity, it is an official task and the time horizon for implementation is now very manageable.

Strengths of open source solutions

In contrast to commercial licenses, the source code is available for open source solutions. This has a number of advantages, such as the ability to make adjustments to the application yourself and adapt it to your own needs. With code that can be viewed by everyone, bugs are also more likely to be discovered and fixed. In addition, an institution that works with open source applications is independent of the provider and does not have to pay monthly usage fees or accept terms of use that contradict its own corporate principles or policies. Probably the most important reason, however, is that freely accessible code also means that hardly any manipulation is possible and no data can be siphoned off by the application unnoticed from the outside. In detail, the following reasons also speak in favor of open source solutions.

Quality and innovation

In order to provide national authorities with good and functioning software solutions in the long term, it is worthwhile to rely on open source applications. The fact that the code is publicly accessible means that it is subject to a continuous improvement process. In contrast, proprietary systems that are not used as a cloud quickly lead to software obsolescence. In large OSS projects, the continuous development cycles ensure that the version is always up to the latest technical standard. Since everyone can see the further developments, the developers are also inclined to deliver good code that is as free of errors as possible. After all, one has a reputation to lose. The publishers also usually do not have a company with a deadline breathing down their necks, so they can do their work to the best of their knowledge and belief. The freely accessible code also makes it easier to find errors. Automatic reviews for each new application scenario also ensure high software quality.

Open source can also offer an advantage in terms of innovation. It is not necessary to develop what a particular company specifies, but rather what the developers consider interesting and important. Trends can thus be responded to much more quickly. Another advantage is that public code means that the software can be further developed by users even if the original publisher of the software is no longer available. In this way, public code can live on independently of the initial developer. In addition, if a public agency itself commissions or performs development, it can have a say in its direction and also eliminates the need to wait for updates or new features. The public agency can thus exert direct influence.


At first glance, the open code seems to be a security risk, but this is deceptive. Because theoretically everyone has access to the open code, security gaps are quickly noticed and can be closed. Of course, there will always be hackers who find some vulnerability, but on the other hand, there is always a large community available that strives to quickly eliminate the vulnerability. In many cases, these are not just a few hobby programmers, but highly professional developers. For example, for the Drupal CMS there are highly qualified experts and entire security audits by independent authors.

Another security-relevant advantage is that with a self-used and hosted open source solution, all data is located on the company’s own server, making it much more difficult for highly sensitive information to be accessed from the outside. With commercial applications now stored almost exclusively in the cloud, comprehensive data protection is almost impossible to guarantee, especially since the major tech corporations such as Microsoft or Oracle are primarily based in the USA.

Durability and flexibility

Authorities often have the reputation of being rigid organizations, where there is hardly any further development. However, with a constantly changing IT landscape, no authority can afford to stand still. Therefore, even a current version from a software manufacturer quickly becomes obsolete again, at least insofar as it is not a cloud solution with regular updates. With open source, on the other hand, the code is constantly being developed and adapted to current conditions.

In addition, the use of resources should not be neglected. Once a public authority or other institution has decided on a software, the change is very costly. This is because, in addition to the high acquisition and implementation costs, there are usually additional costs for the company’s own IT as well as the training of employees, who usually have little desire to familiarize themselves with new systems. If the systems once understood keep changing, the willingness to deal with new applications and processes at all also dwindles. With OSS, an authority can always build on the existing system and continuously adapt it to the respective requirements. Employees can thus continue to develop in their familiar system and do not have to completely reorient themselves every few years because there is a better solution on the market.

Our own open source solution OpenEMM, for example, has been around for 15 years. Since the free version of the E-Marketing Manager is developed together with the commercial version and there are regular releases, the OpenEMM is always up to date.

Open interfaces

In addition to the code, database and file formats are of course also freely accessible. This facilitates the compatibility of an OSS with third-party applications, because systems can and should rarely exist on their own. The exchange with other systems via natively open interfaces across different locations and IT systems thus brings a great advantage in the internal and external communication of public authorities. On the one hand, this enables them to exchange data with each other and, on the other, to merge data from different sources, interpret it accordingly and use it further. Simple and open interfaces ensure that different authorities can network with each other and thus, for example, provide comprehensive bases for decision-making for assessments and planning procedures.

Another example is the comparison of databases in the fight against crime, for example, different police departments with each other, but also with other authorities such as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Good and functioning communication with the support of appropriate interfaces is also in the interests of the citizen, as processing is faster and an extra application does not have to be submitted to each authority.

Free of charge

Open source applications are in principle free of charge, since the code is freely available. This means that no license fees are incurred. However, it must be noted that especially in the beginning, high costs for implementation and possible individual adjustments can occur. The more individual a solution is to become, the more expensive it will be. Unfortunately, this also applies in the long term, since specific further developments will probably have to be carried out or commissioned by the user and not by the open source community. If, on the other hand, an administration can get by for the most part with the free standard solution and thus only a few adaptations are necessary, open source software is significantly less expensive in the long run, since it is essentially only the operation that costs money.

Public funding

Open source solutions are not only free of charge, but are sometimes even subsidized. For example, the EU promotes several OSS projects. These are not only about the creation and further development of code, but also about bug fixing. Therefore, there are also projects that pay premiums for found and fixed security-relevant errors. This is the case with Drupal, for example.

Challenges with open source solutions

As with everything, there are of course also reasons that can speak against the use of open source, such as lack of acceptance or administrations that are simply very small and for which it is clearly more economical to use a commercial license. Ultimately, it is always a balance between interests and resources.

Market maturity and quality

Especially with relatively new open source applications, it is possible that they still contain some bugs and run less stable. At this point, however, it must be said that this has also happened with commercial software applications. With open source software it can also occasionally happen that there are two versions of an application: An older, stable version and a new version that does not yet run completely smoothly. The potential user can then choose whether robust operation or up-to-date features are more important to him.

With a free software solution, of course, no guarantee can be expected, since the user licenses usually exclude this. The developers are thus not liable for the quality of their products. To compensate for this, however, maintenance contracts with professional support services are now also offered for open source solutions.


Future prospects can also speak against free IT solutions. With operating systems such as Linux, no one need worry, but with smaller open source projects, it may well be that they will not be pursued any further at some point. For public authorities, it therefore makes sense to look at how established the respective provider is on the market and, if necessary, to rely on several providers.


One problem is that public authorities sometimes get in their own way, because tenders explicitly call for proprietary solutions or certain programs. Of course, there are also tenders in which OSS is a criterion. As is usual in the federal German system, the requirements vary greatly depending on the authority and the federal state.

Another point is that the software cannot apply for tenders itself. And since there are usually no sales structures in the background for open source software, a suitable open source solution may simply be overlooked in a tender.

One problem is that public authorities sometimes get in their own way, because tenders explicitly call for proprietary solutions or certain programs. Of course, there are also tenders in which OSS is a criterion. As is usual in the federal German system, the requirements vary greatly depending on the authority and the federal state.

Another point is that the software cannot apply for tenders itself. And since there are usually no sales structures in the background for open source software, a suitable open source solution may simply be overlooked in a tender.

Available resources

Staffing levels also play an important factor in the use of open source software in public authorities. Is the in-house capacity sufficient to implement the appropriate software solution and, if necessary, to adapt it to the needs of the authority in question? Are external service providers possibly necessary to take over this, or are there available specialists for the desired application? In principle, IT specialists are currently in short supply.

If an authority needs to build up its own capacities, it has been shown that open source projects are very popular, especially among younger software developers. The use of an OSS can therefore be an incentive for one or two IT experts to work for a public authority. Alternatively, foreign IT specialists are often used for software development.

The size of a public authority can also play a role in deciding whether to use OSS. For small authorities or administrations, it is not always worthwhile to rely on an in-house solution, as the development costs are simply too high. It is easier to implement open source applications that are already in use at other administrations or, if necessary, to stick with commercial software, since anything else would not be economical.

Cost vs. effort

In the public perception, open source is equated with free of charge. However, the complexity and effort involved in migration is often not taken into account enough. Of course, license costs are saved. On the other hand, costs are usually significantly higher, especially at the beginning. In addition, there are the costs for the company’s own IT as well as costs for support and further development, the extent of which cannot always be estimated. In individual cases, costs and efforts that had previously been calculated to be significantly lower have already led to politically motivated withdrawals from open source.


Some specific applications are only available for a few operating systems. An example of this is creative programs from Adobe that only run on Windows and macOS. Even with open source, there are applications that rely on a specific operating system. If such applications are necessary and there is no comparable OSS solution that fits the internally existing operating system, this can be a reason against switching.


User acceptance is an issue with any software change, as most users are reluctant to give up their user habits. Often, users have spent years building up an expertise that they are suddenly asked to throw overboard. This causes frustration. With OSS, there can also be an image problem, since free is often associated with cheap or less valuable. Open source applications are therefore perceived as uncompetitive compared to commercial solutions.

Due to low or non-existent marketing budgets, OSS are also less visible. And it is not uncommon for open source software to have less visual “glamour” than commercial solutions.

If an authority wants to rely on OSS, all employees must be involved and the advantages over the commercial solution must be communicated as openly and transparently as possible, especially if this also brings advantages for the individual employee. A long transition period between the previous application and the new OSS should be avoided if possible, as otherwise employees will take the easier route and continue to use the previous application, meaning that migration will never be complete. It is therefore all the more important to involve the employees in the change from the very beginning and to ensure sufficient acceptance with intensive training and good support, especially in the initial phase.

Examples of the use of open source in German administrations

Schleswig-Holstein - the top student

The northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein wants to rely on open source in the future to achieve greater sovereignty and flexibility. Thus, in June 2020, the state government decided that by 2025, the software infrastructure should be converted as much as possible to existing or new open source solutions in order to become independent of proprietary providers such as Microsoft.

In the case of open source applications, the focus is on existing systems, such as Linux for the operating system, as well as proprietary developments. For example, there is the Dataport project “Phoenix”, which is already underway and aims to develop a web-based administrative workstation. Modular elements are to make all important services such as email, calendar and a central dashboard available. In addition, modules for chat, video conferencing and shared document editing functions ensure secure and encrypted communication within the authority. The individual components are being developed in an agile manner.

In addition to the advantages offered by open source solutions, another reason was that applications from Microsoft have reached their limits when it comes to the requirements for communication between the administration and citizens.

City of Munich - rather not like this

A good example of how things should not be done is the city of Munich, which has been changing again and again for two decades – from Windows to Linux, back to Windows, and now preferring open source again. The position changed depending on the governing coalition in the city. The current Munich city government, made up of the Greens and the SPD, wants to continue the open source transition, which started back in the 2000s and was interrupted with a “back to Windows.”

Development work on the five open-source solutions proposed by the IT department for the city of Munich is to start at the end of 2021. The city wants to make the self-written program code freely available so that it can be improved and further developed. Firm rules are to be found for the participation of outsiders. The main drive back to open source is the hoped-for independence from commercial providers, but also a tailor-made application for the city’s own problems.

To ensure that development and migration do not take years, IT staff are to be trained in OSS development. In addition, an open source hub is to ensure good cooperation between municipal and external employees during development. The “Munich Open Source Sabbatical” also offers developers an attractive stipend to devote themselves entirely to an open source project.

Let’s hope the switch succeeds this time.

by Sophie Schneider

Use open source also for email automation and test our free and professional solution of E-Marketing Manager (EMM)

Open Source at AGNITAS

In addition to our commercial solutions (EMM SaaS, EMM Inhouse and EMM Xpress), we at AGNITAS also offer an open source version of our E-Marketing Manager (EMM) – the OpenEMM. This is a somewhat slimmed-down version compared to the cloud or in-house solution, but still offers all the important requirements of an email marketing application, such as DSGVO compliance, the creation of campaigns and the possibility of marketing automation. Overall, the OpenEMM community is not only enjoying growing popularity in German-speaking countries, but also has a large following with over 6 million downloads worldwide.

This ensures a secure application and quick help in case of problems. OpenEMM is a popular solution, especially for public authorities and non-profit organizations, for the aforementioned reasons in favor of OSS. Another advantage is that when software requirements increase, a smooth switch to the commercial license solution is possible and users can continue to work with familiar processes and a familiar environment. In addition, with us, the original developers, a strong and established partner is available for maintenance orders. Numerous public administrations and institutions, such as the city of Vienna, the municipal utilities in Magdeburg or the Institute for Municipal Data Processing in Bavaria (AKDB), as well as non-profit organizations such as Bread for the World and the German Youth Hostels, already rely on the award-winning software basis.

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