One of the ironies of this column, which appears in a UK title, and is about the use of open source software in large enterprises, is that the biggest UK enterprise of all – the UK government – is singularly backward when it comes to using open source.
That doesn't mean it hasn't made various noises about using it over the last few years, but these have consistently amounted to nothing. Similarly, when the Conservative Party was in opposition, it too made lots of positive statements on the subject, but without any obvious result. And then, against that backdrop of all mouth and no trousers, this "Procurement Policy Note – Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements" [.pdf]
turns up out of the blue:
When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications.
Well, yes, but we all know that the devil is in the details. What exactly does it mean by "open standards"? Glad you asked:
Government defines "open standards" as standards which:
€¢ result from and are maintained through an open, independent process;
€¢ are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent. (N.B. The specification/standardisation must be compliant with Regulation 9 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. This regulation makes it clear that technical specifications/standards cannot simply be national standards but must also include/recognise European standards);
€¢ are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost;
€¢ have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis;and
€¢as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.
The mention of W3C is interesting, but the really key part is "have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis". This is precisely what was missing from the benighted European Interoperability Framework v2, which I discussed a little while back.
That stark contrast between the watered-down version adopted at the European level, and the real openness now being promulgated in the UK is one reason why this is an important move. It shows that despite the European Commission's pusillanimity in the face of lobbyists, national bodies are setting higher standards because they understand that anything less would be pointless if openness is the aim.
Of course, there's still a big loophole in the current Procurement Policy Note, which
recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications
Government departments should ensure that they include open standards in their ICT procurement specifications unless there are clear business reasons why this is inappropriate.
That is, this is in no way mandatory – people can always find "clear business reasons why this is inappropriate" if they try hard enough. But it does at least set a new, rigorous tone for the discussions around open standards and openness. The big question now is: will that translate into meaningful open source deployments by the UK government? We wait with bated breath...