Local government 'detached' from open source benefits
14 March 2011
Whitehall is becoming one of the strongest supporters of open source, but local authorities across the UK are 'stubbornly wedded' into proprietary ICT, writes Graham Taylor, CEO of Openforum Europe
Three new government initiatives in the field of open public sector computing in the past month show that at a national level at least, the UK is one of the strongest supporters of open standards and open source software in Europe.
Unfortunately at grass roots level, local government around the UK remains stubbornly wedded to proprietary computer systems that lock them and their citizens' data into closed computer systems.
Matching strategy with practice has proved not to be easy, and delivery in the form of Procurement processes and contracts placed by the public sector provides not only a highly visible sign of commitment, but actually is how, if you want to change practice, you can directly influence the market.
Government is with its £16.9bn ICT spend by a long way the single largest purchaser of IT, and in the UK over 60% of all central government IT contracts are in the hands of only 12 outsourcers/integrators. As a result of poor past practice and lock-in many authorities and departments will find it difficult to easily take advantage of new functional and technological advances in ICT, without taking difficult decisions now.
The three recent government initiatives aim to help public authorities overcome the perils of lock-in. First, at the end of January it published a Procurement Policy Note on the use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements. It recommends that they "...should whenever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications", but it stops short of mandating open standards.
Crucially, it then defines what it means as an open standard. Unlike the European Commission's European Interoperability Framework published in December - which failed to provide a clear definition, and ducked the controversial issue of IPR royalties by proposing support for both proprietary and open source software – the UK government defines open standards as those based on royalty-free licensing.
It recognises that this is the only way to ensure a level playing field for Open Source software and to maximize the opportunity for interoperability and re-use.
Second, last month in a meeting with all major systems integrators (SI's), and which OFE attended as an advisor, the deputy CIO, Bill McCluggage made crystal clear what government thinking was and what was expected of them.
Three key points emerged:
• Update the procurement process (and in addition to the open standards guideline we know guidelines on open source are under preparation)
• Educate the user (a challenging activity but discussions are continuing, and OFE has agreed to set up an advisory panel – more on this shortly)
• Expect systems integrators to supply technologies based on open standards
It was clear from the tone of the discussion that these were not comments made without substance, and it was also clear that the SIs themselves got the message. They were very positive about the plans. Subsequent press articles have questioned this and inevitably some SIs will be less than happy to any change in the status quo. But all of them will realize soon enough that if the customer wants something then they have a choice – meet the need fo open standards or don't bid.
Then at the end of February the UK government published an Open Standards Survey, which opens up some 270 possible/projected standards (not all of them open) to public scrutiny. It also invites respondents to give their definitions of open standards. The survey was announced by Bill McCluggage at the 5th ODF Plugfest , being held for the first time in the UK. His presence there sent a strong message of support to the open standards community across Europe. Open Document Exchange Formats will inevitably be an area for important debate, and one where we can expect to see government determination to lead by example being put to the test.
Why is the UK government acting now? Clearly the drive to open up procurement to SMEs is attractive, as is the wish to maximize competitive choice in the market. But clearly the pressure to deliver financial savings is prominent – now as well as in the medium/long term – and all the evidence is that open source underpinned by open standards will do precisely that.
So has the UK got it right with their strategy? I think yes. It is absolutely right to stick with a clear definition of what an open standard is, and what it expects the market to be doing to move forward to adopting such standards. It is also being pragmatic in recognizing that we don't live in utopia and that today many standards in use are not ideal, so lets accept them when inevitable and develop a plan to move to the next open version whenever possible. Its also being honest and transparent, and instead of doing deals behind close doors, or being open to lobbying pressure, it is involving the citizen – opening up the data, and getting the widest possible input.
The next test will be in publication both of the government's overall ICT strategy, and in publication and implementation of its architectural framework. Outside UK it will be for other governments to follow UK's lead (some like Netherlands and Belgium are already there) and develop their own practical procurement processes and frameworks. Then at last we may have the basis for true pan European interoperability and code sharing. Maybe utopia is possible after all?
Unfortunately at grass roots level local government around the UK remains stubbornly wedded to proprietary computer systems that lock them and their citizens' data into closed computer systems.
Local government generally still seems detached from the opportunity to gain significant financial and citizen benefit from open computing systems.
At the ODF Plugfest Mark Wright, a councillor from Bristol with responsibility for ICT described Bristol's experience implementing ODF. Having opted for the Open Document Format in 2004, Bristol has selectively been forced to switch back to use some of the proprietary software it used before. Wright claimed limited success only because Bristol suffered interoperability problems when communicating both with local offices and with central government and because certain software suppliers didn't offer products based on the ODF open standard, Wright said.
The UK government has set its course for public sector ICT. Whether local authorities choose to follow that course, or to remain locked-in to legacy systems is another matter.