Making Government IT Better - and Open


As I've noted many a time, the UK government has been one of the most backward when it comes to adopting open source solutions.

The fact that over the last few years it has started to make vague noises about doing so shows more that it's realised it looks pretty dumb compared to other governments as a consequence, not that it's serious about things. Indeed, it's still the case that closed-source software dominates government procurement. A leaked copy of the government's IT strategy has the following imaginative attempt to explain why that is:

In 2004, Government formally articulated the policy that it would seek to use Open Source wherever it gave the best value for money in delivering public services. However, there were 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.

Suppliers of COTS software were often opaque in their dealings with Government regarding supply chain, terms and conditions and a refusal to treat Government as a single entity. This made like for like comparisons with Open Source extremely difficult. In addition, the Government IT profession had limited skills and a risk-averse culture that limited uptake of Open Source and did not challenge suppliers about technology solutions.

Those may be true as far as they go, but none of them represented an insuperable difficulty; essentially, without a real political will to change, people on the ground either wouldn't or couldn't do much.

So, what does the new IT strategy now propose for open source?

The Open Source, Open Standards and Reuse Strategy was published in February 2009. It states that Government will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions. In addition, Government will, wherever possible, avoid becoming locked in to proprietary software. In particular it will take exit, re-bid and rebuild costs into account in procurement decisions and will require those proposing proprietary software to specify how exit would be achieved.

The strategy includes an action plan that is a positive programme to ensure an effective level playing field between open source and COTS [commercial off the shelf] software. It also includes actions which will ensure Government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and will require solutions to comply with open standards. Government will continue to use only open standards for documentation such as ODF, PDF and OOXML. The G-Cloud will host the G-AS which will hold existing open source code and solutions for reuse across the public sector.

Er, well, that's just a re-statement of what was said nine months ago, since which time very little has happened in practical terms. What this misses is that fine words butter no parsnips: the government has got to start *doing* something in terms of buying and deploying open source software on a large scale.

But wait, here's how everything will be sorted out according to the new strategy:

In order to achieve the key outcomes desired by Government, the CIO council have commissioned OGC and Cabinet Office to ensure implementation of the action plan. Using the governance structure in Appendix XX, the Open Source, Open Standards, and Reuse working group will deliver clear and open guidance for ensuring 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 G-Cloud. The Government Applications Stores will hold Open Source solutions that are available for reuse in the public sector and by 2015 public bodies will review existing solutions available before going to market for new solutions.

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