Regular readers of this blog will know that a perennial theme is the UK government's insane refusal to deploy open source almost anywhere within its vast machine and thus to gain the many advantages this offers. Similarly, from other pages here on Computerworld UK, it will be no secret that the government's IT policy of the recent past has been distinguished by an apparently never-ending series of disasters. (I would say that the two are related....)
It's true that our new lords and masters (and presumably ladies and mistresses) have made some vaguely encouraging noises about adopting open source, and opening things up in general (which, to be fair, is starting to happen) but so far there's been precious little evidence of free software actually being used in UK government.
But moaning is one thing: making concrete suggestions how to get us out of this almighty mess, and to move us to a different procurement regime, quite another. That's what makes a new report "Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings" particular valuable: it goes beyond pointing out the almost painfully-obvious problems to offering steps that can be taken to address them today.
I was pleased that the report agrees with my own analysis of one of the key obstacles to improving the State's use of computers:
UK Government IT has failed to meet political and public aspirations and has followed a policy of demand aggregation, an approach that has concentrated the IT marketplace in the hands of a small group of overly influential "System Integrator" companies who themselves find the profligate waste and lack of capability deeply troubling.
Effective checks and controls over IT contracts have been dismantled with a move instead to selectively placed, very large, high value and long-term contracts going to ‘the big 9'. Transparency is routinely refused, often for ‘Commercial Confidentiality' reasons.
More fundamentally, by turning away from the IT mainstream (based on open platforms, open competition and rapid innovation) and instead pursuing a closed, centralised IT model, government has effectively backed the wrong model – it has chosen Betamax over VHS.
Trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac and with little competitive leverage, it has paid ever larger amounts to persuade suppliers to prop up its suite of disconnected, unsustainable platforms.
I think that is absolutely right. And one of the direct side-effects of this concentration of power in the hands of large, risk-averse companies, is that open source has been shut out almost completely. And it is precisely open source – plus associated kinds of openness – that lie at the heart of the new approach proposed by the report:
5 principles underlining all IT in government
We base our approach on a small number of core principles1) Openness a. Open Data – government data must be transparent b. Open Source works – its concepts should be applied to processes as much as to IT c. Open Standards will drive interoperability, save money and prevent vendor lock-in d.Open Markets – competition creates efficient market-based solutions.
2) Localism – the centre may set the standards, but local deployment is best.3) Ownership and Privacy a. It's our data, government can have access but not control over personal data. b. Government should be accountable for data protection and proper use.
4)Outcomes matter more than targets.
5)Government must be in control of its programmes, not led by them.
The report clearly has a certain political bias against the previous government, but that doesn't affect the validity of its main points. Moreover, the lead author, Liam Maxwell (disclosure: I provided some minor input about open source to him and his colleagues) knows what he is talking about because he has already done many of things he advocates, albeit on a smaller scale, in local government (in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead). This puts him on much stronger ground than armchair pundits (like me) who tend to pontificate without that hands-on background experience.
I'm not sure how much influence the document – or Maxwell – will have within the new government; I hope at least some, because the ideas he presents are nothing if not refreshing. And against the background of staggeringly costly IT failures caused by the previous decade's closed-source and closed-mind approach, they can hardly do worse.