The UK is adopting a new policy to push government agencies into using open source in new ways and instead of proprietary software.

The new initiative builds on an earlier policies aimed at encouraging open source software where it gives the best value for money. Now further action will be taken to ensure that open source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT.

The directive comes as governments around the world are seeking ways to lower costs for IT projects and infrastructure. Recently a number of national technology standards bodies have rallied around the cause of open data formats.

In the UK the new plan calls for government agencies to specify that data is available in an open standard format to all civil servants.

Avoiding proprietary software lock-in is key to the UK's plan which calls for the government to require proprietary vendors participating in procurement bids to specify exit costs for their software.

The UK isn't saying that open standards necessarily need to be from open source software: as part of the action plan, the UK will also support emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards, such as Adobe's PDF format and Microsoft's Office Open XML formats.

Whilst it is easy to see the superficial attraction of open source as a route out of excessively onerous or expensive business practices which are sometimes associated with proprietary systems. The real economic arguments are actually rather more subtle.

Open source has been around for a long time with successful initiatives like Linux long touted as the natural successor to proprietary operating systems like Windows and Mac OS. Yet despite the obvious attraction of being free they are still very much restricted to the geekier end of the market.

When it comes to business critical applications of the kind government agencies require to run their services the picture is different again, these are not commodity purchases. Building a new business system is an engineering process much like constructing a new hospital or bridge.

Most of the cost is related to the time spent on designing and building the system, and the long term flexibility of the system depends to a considerable extent on the ongoing availability of skilled people who really understand that specific application.

My personal view as a long term supplier to the UK government in various guises is that this type of initiative is a perfectly reasonable shot over the bows of some of the more voracious suppliers of proprietary systems.

Those who seek to exploit their positions as established suppliers unfairly. But for the most part the choice of open source or proprietary software components within a particular solution is very secondary to the importance of quality engineering and the right long term relationship between the supplier and the customer.

Chris Gledhill is managing director of IT services company PDMS Limited