A €œRefreshed€� ICT Strategy for Government?

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As I've noted many times, the UK government's track record when it comes to open source has been woeful. However, over the last year or two, there have been some grounds for optimism, albeit more along the lines of talking the talk rather than walking the walk. And here we have some more talk: a “refreshed” version of the ICT strategy.

To be honest, I don't remember much about the original one, which was obviously pretty unmemorable, but reading through the latest version, there do seem to be quite a few mentions of openness and open source, starting from the Minsterial Foreword, which includes the following nod:

We need to standardise, simplify and move to a more shared and open world

The first real mention of open source crops up in a surprising context: on the desktop.

Our aim is to see desktop computing across government delivered through common models and shared services. While it is right and appropriate that there will be multiple desktop shared services, operating in a competitive environment, each will serve a community sufficient to offer the maximum economy of scale. This suite of standard desktop designs will therefore include one based on open source operating systems and applications for office automation such as word processing, email and internet browsing.

That's certainly good to see, although it will only be one of the desktop designs, which means that most people will continue to go for the “easy” - as in unthinking – solution of Windows.

Probably more important is the fact that the inherent reusability of open source is recognised as a key virtue to be expected as a matter of course. There's a whole section entitled “Open Source Open Standards Reuse”, which says:

The Open Source Open Standards Reuse Strategy will invigorate the use of open source software and open standards within the public sector.

Significant savings will be delivered through the reuse of existing applications and solutions, which become standard practice.

Again, these are fine words, but I was impressed by the following perceptive analysis of why open source has not yet flourished in the context of government computing:

Traditionally, the public sector, in common with most large organisations, has relied on commercial off-the-shelf software or bespoke developments to run ICT systems and processes. In most instances, this comes from global commercial enterprises, uses proprietary code and cannot easily be reused across the public sector – reducing value for money, flexibility and agility. Importantly, it also restricts opportunities to reduce risks to service delivery.

In 2004, the Government formally articulated the policy that it would seek to use open source software wherever it gave the best value for money in delivering public services. However, there were then many barriers to widespread adoption of open source. The software and wider IT markets were immature and did not have competitive products that were easy to include in enterprise business solutions. Meanwhile, suppliers of commercial off-the-shelf software, recognising the risk that open source posed to their business, were sometimes less than clear about supply chain issues and terms and conditions, and refused to treat government as single entity. This made like-for-like comparison with open source software extremely difficult. In addition, the Government IT Profession had limited exposure to open source software: in a risk-averse culture, this not only limited uptake of open source software but also meant that suppliers were not challenged about technology solutions.

The key phrase there is “risk-averse culture”: I think this is probably the single most important reason open source has failed to make much headway in UK government computing. At least people now seem to be aware of the problem – let's hope this latest strategy will actually tackle it.

Finally, picking up in the theme of reuse, a formal structure for sharing experiences of using open source will be put in place:

the Open Source, Open Standards and Reuse working group will deliver clear and open guidance to ensure that open source and proprietary products are considered equally and systematically for value for money. By 2011, public bodies will store and share records of their approval and use of open source software on the Government Cloud. The Government Applications Store will hold open source solutions that are available for reuse in the public sector and, by 2015, public bodies will review the existing solutions available before seeking out new solutions.

Clearly, much of this is just words, words, words, as someone once said. Moreover, the time scales are depressingly long: 2015 is a generation away in technology terms. Still, the fact that open source is mentioned explicitly in the ways described above, and that there is a growing understanding of the problems it faces, gives me some slight hope that one day we might even start seeing free software being widely used by the UK government.

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