I was asked two very interesting questions by a thoughtful technical architect who worked for a major Local Authority who now, like many many others in this sector, wanted to know more about open source software.
He wanted to know, in the light of the Government's well-publicised new found enthusiasm for open source software, whether I thought they would all be using open source software in ten year's time and if so when and how would it all happen?
The first question was easy.
"Yes," I replied to the first question and not quite disingenuously added, "if we were to have this conversation in ten year's time I would be amazed if you were running any proprietary software."
I meant what I said but did not really answer the question as the more attentive reader will have spotted. We shall return to this question later, but first to the second question - when and how?
I was a bit stumped.
I knew the public purse was cash-strapped to say the least, I knew how much FOSS could save them and I knew the Government were the new FOSS evangelists.
I also new these reasons were not enough.
After all it's a very 'big ask' to have hyper-accountable, sensibly risk-averse, very complex organisations believe the likes of me and take the plunge into FOSS. So I scrabbled in my head for an answer and said spontaneously, "when a major ICT outsourcer goes bust!."
As I said that, we had what can only be described as an 'Icelandic Bank' moment (as we know this is not a topic that LA's like to think about)...that's unthinkable.
My answers above were of course typical 'flow of talk' answers, not quite flip but not enough time to have had a good think. Below is the product of a bit more thinking and a little Googling.
I'll take the questions in reverse order.
Fully one fifth of Local Authority and Government ICT is now outsourced. The rise of the outsourcer in this sector has been meteoric (or explosive if you prefer). As the public purse dwindles the promises of cost cutting by outsourcing to the private sector grow ever more attractive and most analysts think the likes of Capita and Serco will pick up even more business in the coming months.
To illustrate, check out the following figures for Capita. This year alone they picked up (so far) £500 million in new contracts which will bring their revenue to nearly £3 billion a figure made even more impressive when in 1997 when the Labour Government first came to power it was a thirtieth of that.
This year their first pre-tax half year profits on those billions were £83 million. Profits margins were down in 2008 to only 11% and according to analysts are set to shrink further. This is an organisation that certainly does not profiteer at our expense.
However, times are hard for all of us.
On cannot help noticing when visiting outsourced LA and Government departments how old the printers and PCs are, or how development work on software packages like VLE's and Management Information Software seems glacially slow
Outsourced ICT providers still have to pay for software (exclusively proprietary it seems ) and licences and no one knows what this costs them. Can they afford to upgrade to MS Server 2008 and Windows 7? ..possibly not.
And what of these new contracts are they profitable or just cash flow/market share jobs?
One I know about was for the ICT 'Home Access Programme' which laudably provides funds to allow the poorest children to be able to access IT and the Internet. Nobody I have spoken to eligible to tender could see how they could make a profit from it and still deliver a reasonable service. One of the major outsource ICT service providers apparently did.
I am not saying the private outsource sector is in trouble, I do not have that information I am just saying that the Public Sector has not even begun to think about the possibility of a major ICT outsourcer running into trouble.
I'm just saying outsourcing risk does not remove the risk.
Oh no please, not that again. Apologies, but the G-Cloud, the Government's Microsoft driven, private data cloud and application store is coming soon. It is not really conceivable that Local Authorities will not be encouraged to use it!
So this returns me to my first answer.
I said that I don't think in ten year's time the public sector will be running its own proprietary software.
Indeed, if the Government gets its way there will be a jolly big proprietary cloud running free open source applications and all the LAs will have to do is fire up a browser on a dumb-ish terminal.
No need to outsource that service then!. No need either for an Open Source infrastructure either...ah.
We really are living in interesting ICT times. In 2010 we face the possibility of a radical shift in Government who may or may not continue the love affair with all things Microsoft and outsourcing to party donors combined with an economic scene where all the explosive growth bubbles have now burst.
We could be looking in evolutionary terms like a meteor has struck us. Ironically the LAs, the most cautious and conservative of creatures will like all before them have assessed all of the threats except the one that gets them.
I wonder too if the Open Source creatures currently scurrying around will have their day or will they perish too?