The poor showing of UK local government in terms of open source uptake is by now well known; what is lacking, though, is a more detailed of picture of what's going on – and what's not. That makes the appearance of a new site, UKGovOSS, “set up by Public Sector Forums to share information and ideas on using open source software and open standards in government,” dedicated to this field, particularly welcome.
In part, that's because it offers a number of features to those who become members, including the ability to:
Create your own profile page so members can learn more about you
Meet and interact with other members
Join special interest groups - or create your own
Take part in public and private forum discussions
Stay on top of the action with email updates
All of which will be useful in terms of helping to forge an online community for this sector. That will be useful in the long term, but what makes the new site valuable now is that it brings with it “Open or Closed? New Report on Open Source in Local Government":
To mark the launch of UKGovOSS, today we’re publishing our new report looking at the state of open source software activity in local government. Open or Closed? is based on research we carried out late last year to examine the adoption, perceptions and experiences of open source in councils across the UK. Our thanks to the 168 local authority managers and staff who took part.
Here's some background to the report:
With the current economic downturn placing public finances under significant pressure, local authorities need to prepare for a more challenging future. In a climate of increasing budget constraints, councils are now facing inescapable demands to develop new and innovative ways to transform services, generate cashable efficiencies and deliver more for less. At the same time, local government IT costs are rising: In January this year, Socitm (the professional association for public ICT management) reported ICT spending by UK local authorities would soar by 5% in 2008/09, reaching a record level of £3.2 billion of expenditure. These developments underline the need for councils to drive more value from their IT investments.
These imperatives are concurrent with a fresh resurgence of interest across UK government in open source software. In February, the Government gave an official (and according to some, long overdue) commitment to increase the use of open source software through the public sector – the first update in policy since 2004. Government has now redefined its approach to open source, asserting the need to give open source software equal consideration to traditional proprietary solutions. But will this new enthusiasm for open source in government be reflected in greater adoption? Is local government, the sector seen as potentially most receptive to open source, ready, willing and able to embrace this change? What do councils see as the key strategic, management and technical barriers to engaging fully with open source? And how can these obstacles be best overcome?
To help find answers to these questions and others, Public Sector Forums, who host an online community of some 14,000 professionals who work in and around the public sector, conducted research to examine the adoption, perceptions and experiences of open source technologies within UK local authorities.The survey, which preceded the publication of the UK Government Action Plan for Open Source on 24 February 2009, ran from 18 November to 12 December 2008 and was completed by 168 respondents. Responses were anonymous unless respondents provided contact details. The majority of those taking part were from District Councils (31%), followed by Unitary authorities (27%), County Councils (17%), Mets (14%) and London Boroughs (7%).
Here are the main findings:
Open source software is already used widely by local authorities at many levels and for a very large number of different applications – primarily on open source web servers, databases and web publishing tools. Open source plays an important role in many councils' IT infrastructure, normally as part of a 'mixed economy' of both open source and proprietary software.
Though open source adoption in local government is wide and diverse, levels of usage have not yet extended to the same degree on the desktop. The survey shows Microsoft has an effective monopoly on the operating systems used on local government desktops. Aside from web and IT teams, the majority of local government staff are currently unlikely to interact knowingly with open source software in the workplace. Despite the widespread use of proprietary desktop software, there appears to be a distinct sense of concern within many local authorities about software licensing costs.
Open source office productivity software, however, has gained a small but significant foothold in a few local authorities. This is the single key area where councils believe open source will make the greatest impact over the next two years.
Technical obstacles are perceived to be less a major barrier to implementation of open source than internal cultural issues within councils themselves. A widespread perception exists in local government that open source software is too risky for councils to consider. If adoption of open source software in local government is to be increased, there is a pressing need to raise councils' confidence in taking the open source approach. Exemplar authorities who can demonstrate successful implementation to councils, along with greater endorsement of open source from central government, both have a powerful role to play.
The main drivers for adopting free software were as follows:
Cost savings emerged, by a clear length, as the top reason why local authorities had chosen open solution solutions. Three quarters of respondents (75%) cited lower cost as one of the most important factors in their decision to use open source.
Following this, as the second most key driver of adoption, is the view that open source affords councils the potential freedom from dependency on particular suppliers. Almost half (47%) of those surveyed cited this reason, while 41% were drawn by the functionality of the software itself.
None of this will come as a huge surprise to anyone that has been following this sector for a while. The fear of failure and lack of support from central government are familiar problems. But what is useful is the quantification of other aspects of open source use in local governments that this survey provides. Let's hope the UKGovOSS site thrives and is able to bring us updated surveys – maybe even ones that show some real progress in this frustrating area.