Dipping Into the UK Government's Open Source Procurement Toolkit

The UK Government has published what it calls its "Open Source Procurement Toolkit". It's a sad reflection of how long the open source in government non-story has been going on that at the top of the home page for those documents you find: "The...

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The UK Government has published what it calls its "Open Source Procurement Toolkit". It's a sad reflection of how long the open source in government non-story has been going on that at the top of the home page for those documents you find: "The Government first set out its policy on the use of open source in 2004. This was restated in both 2009 and 2010." And still nothing has happened....

However, trying to look on the bright side, let's welcome the documents offered here – not least because they come in two versions: as PDFs and – drumroll – as ODFs. That might seem a small thing, but that alone shows that somebody gets it – that open source in government isn't just about talking, but about doing. Making document files routinely available in ODF format is an excellent example – so kudos for that, at least.

The first is entitled "All About Open Source." Now, obviously, anyone reading this column probably knows a fair deal about the subject, but this document still has considerable value, in two ways.

First, it is something that can be handed out to those who are less familiar with background – the fact that it comes from the Cabinet Office should be enough to ensure that it is given rather more attention than internally-generated backgrounders. Secondly, it is valuable for the insights that it gives us into current government thinking, particularly those that emerge almost incidentally.

For example, after a short section introducing open source, quite early in the document there is another headed "What are Open Standards?" As regular readers of this column will know, although this sounds dull it is in fact crucial. Here's what it says:

Policy states that the Government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and require solutions to comply with open standards.

Government defines ‘open standards' as standards which:

result from and are maintained through and open, independent process

are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent

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 key phrase there is "have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis" since this means that technologies used in open standards must be restriction free (RF), not just fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND). However, there is still a little wiggle room:

Cabinet Office also mandates that when purchasing software, ICT infrastructure and other ICT goods and services Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications. This is because Government assets should be interoperable and open for re-use in order to maximise return on investment, avoid technological or supplier lock-in, reduce operational risk in ICT projects and provide responsive services for citizens and business. This should also lower barriers to entry for more diverse sources of IT services, including citizens and SMEs.

That is, the definition of open standards is rigorous, but the open standards are not mandated – instead, they are to be used "wherever possible." Still, that's better than nothing.

Talking of mandates, there's a section that addresses that directly:

Why doesn't Government mandate the use of open source solutions?

The UK Government's interpretation of European procurement legislation would deem the mandating of open source as a breach of antitrust law. This rests on the current interpretation of whether open source is a product or a feature. European countries, such as Italy, interpret open source as a feature rather than a product. This means that preference for open source is simply preference for a legal feature of a product and, in stating this preference, no commercial vendor has been inappropriately favoured or disfavoured.

Furthermore, mandating open source would preclude the option of proprietary software from the procurement process. It is yet to be categorically proven that open source software provides better value for money when considering the total cost of ownership. Therefore, Cabinet Office takes the position that it will level the playing field for open source software, allowing departments to select the best value-for-money option.

That's interesting, since it seems to suggest that the UK position is that open source is a product, not a feature. It's hard to see how that's the case, since open source is something that can be applied to any application: it's not a new class of software in addition to those.

Another paper is entitled "Procurement of Open Source". It makes this important statement:

This document does not endorse open source over proprietary software or vice versa. Current Government Policy states, however, that where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its inherent flexibility.

That's good, because it recognises that open source in itself is superior to proprietary software that is otherwise as cost effective thanks to other qualities – such as flexibility.

I also found these comments on the way in which open source fits into EU Procurement Rules illuminating:

Where the software is free to use ‘gratis' software and all associated products are free for the whole of life use then there is no requirement to tender the requirement for the licenses. It is important from a procurement perspective to ensure that the whole life costs are examined, as although the software cost may appear free at the point of access it may not be free through life. A purchase of support and maintenance procured separately from licenses will need to be tendered where it is expected that the cost of support meets the EU thresholds and in accordance with any standing financial instructions.

...

The second route is for a purchaser to simply download the open source software from an Internet source on a "no-cost" and "as is" basis. In this case, EU procurement rules are unlikely to apply (unless training materials or support and maintenance are being purchased) as there will be no supplier contract as such.

Again, these emphasise special advantages that open source enjoys compared to traditional applications and procurement practices.

A third document looks at "Open source options", and is a surprisingly complete run-down of all the main software categories and free software solutions, as well as information on their proprietary equivalents and a handy list of some large-scale real-world uses of free software options. Again, I think this could be very useful not just for helping people find open source for the companies – they can do that already – but as something to wave under senior management's noses as proof that they are now official alternatives to proprietary solutions: after all, the Cabinet Office document says so.

Finally, there's a short document called "Total Cost of Ownership – things to consider" which makes some sensible points, but is otherwise fairly unremarkable.

As you can probably tell, overall I was quite impressed by this new "toolkit". It obviously represents a lot of hard work by people in the Cabinet Office, and they are to be commended for the results, which show a genuine understanding of the open source world. As I've noted, the information they provide will be useful for people outside the UK government too, not least because they carry rather more authority than most such introductory documents.

The big caveat, of course, is that we've been here before in the sense that many fine words have been emitted by the UK Government on the subject of open source, but followed up by precious few actions. I'm too old and cynical to expect too much from the current round of open source activities, but you never know, one day we might finally get there....

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