UK Government Open Standards: The Great Betrayal of 2012

Back in February of this year, I wrote about PPN 3/11, a Cabinet Office “Procurement Policy Note - Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements” [.pdf], which contained the following excellent definition of open...


Back in February of this year, I wrote about PPN 3/11, a Cabinet Office "Procurement Policy Note – Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements" [.pdf], which contained the following excellent definition of open standards:

result from and are maintained through an open, independent process;

are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent. (N.B. The specification/standardisation must be compliant with Regulation 9 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. This regulation makes it clear that technical specifications/standards cannot simply be national standards but must also include/recognise European standards);

are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost;

have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis;


as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.

The key sentence there, of course, is the "intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis". This is what the traditional proprietary software companies have been fighting tooth and nail against, because it would create a truly level playing field that would allow open source to compete fairly, and they fear that more than anything.

And now it looks like they've won.

For out of nowhere, the Cabinet Office has now issued PPN 9/11, "Procurement Policy Note -Open Standards when specifying ITrequirements". It starts off promisingly enough:

The Government ICT Strategy (March 2011) states the following commitment in relation to Open Standards:­

"The Government will create a common and secure ICT infrastructure based on a suite of agreed, open standards which will be published and updated. The use of common standards can make ICT solutions fully interoperable to allow for reuse, sharing and scalability across organisational boundaries into local delivery chains.

The adoption of compulsory open standards will help government to avoid lengthy vendor lock­in, allowing the transfer of services or suppliers without excessive transition costs, loss of data or significant functionality."

That seems to confirm that the UK government is still committed to those "compulsory open standards". But hold on a minute:

PPN 3/11, Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements, published in January 2011, described work that was planned to define the suite of agreed open standards. A survey was launched in February to gather views on:

the definition of the term open standard

the open standards that should be a priority for Government to consider

whether particular standards should be mandated, recommended or avoided

There's a non-sequitur in there, because the previous open standards procurement note said nothing about any of those; here's the relevant section:

As part of this commitment work is underway to define a range of specific open standards and procurement practices for ICT goods and services. A consultation on these standards will commence shortly and will be available on the Cabinet Office website.

There was nothing about "the definition of the term open standard" - the earlier procurement note had provided that in crystal-clear terms; indeed that was one of its signal achievements. There was nothing about "the open standards that should be a priority for Government to consider", and there was most certainly nothing whatsoever about "whether particular standards should be mandated, recommended or avoided", because PPN 3/11 stated clearly:

When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications.

There was nothing about "mandated, recommended or avoided": the only issue was whether it was possible to deploy them – reasonable enough, in the sense that there is no pointing mandating open standards if they don't exist. Those other questions were added in the consultation, and were not part of the original procurement standard. This attempt to shift gears clearly prefigures a screaming U-turn by the Cabinet Office.

In fact you can already hear the tyres in this section of PPN 9/11:

The survey has provided a rich source of information, however it has also raised many questions that need to be investigated in more detail to ensure that the open standards policy is robust and delivers the outcomes Government is seeking to achieve in providing better services for less cost.

A formal public consultation will be published to gather evidence and further develop the open standards policy. The consultation will be published on the Cabinet Office website.

"The survey has provided a rich source of information" is classic civil servant-speak for "it was exactly what we didn't want, and we will now do our utmost to bury it in the largest filing cabinet in the deepest government cellar." Similarly, the phrase "it has also raised many questions that need to be investigated in more detail" means nothing less than "we intend to ignore every last letter of the results."

There's another fine weasel word in "to ensure that the open standards policy is robust": "robust" - but in what sense? In the sense that it can withstand being hit with a sledgehammer, or robust in the sense that it can withstand the attacks of serried ranks of determined lobbyists? Clearly not the latter, because the appearance of the unnecessary PPN 9/11 is the surest proof that they have been exploring the how "robust" the existing open standards policy really is.

There then follows the typical get-out: "delivers the outcomes Government is seeking to achieve in providing better services for less cost." Translated: you know, this open standards lark is fine in theory, but doesn't cut the mustard in practice. Which is rather rich coming from a government that has probably the worst procurement record on the planet, and is a by-word for incompetent IT acquisition and implementation.

Since the system based around lock-in to proprietary standards has cost the country tens of billions of pounds, how on earth can the Cabinet Office have the temerity to imply that open standards couldn't possibly deliver? After all, it is probably humanly impossible to do any worse than the UK government has done in the past, so why not give true open standards a chance?

So what follows this blatant softening-up was almost inevitable: that as a result of the previous consultation, the Cabinet Office has decided – wait for it – to hold another consultation.

That means one thing, and one thing only: that even using the most Jesuitical interpretation of the results, it didn't get any mandate in the first one to carry out a U-turn on open standards, and so has decided to hold another one in the hope that this time there will be enough lobbyists sending in carefully-honed dossiers (probably being put together even as I write) so that the Cabinet Office will announce next year that it is being "forced" to change direction by sheer overwhelming public demand for proprietary standards and monopolistic pricing.

Clearly the Cabinet Office has been under attack by those same lobbyists, and lacks the wit or spine to withstand their unjustified and high-paid whingeing. After all, if proprietary software companies really believed their products were superior, they'd be happy to compete on a level playing field; but they know full well that the only reason that they have UK government IT over a barrel is because of lock-in to proprietary formats which they are determined to maintain.

And if you want any further proof that the UK Cabinet Office has given up trying to defend UK interests, and totally capitulated to the pressure of proprietary software companies – the vast majority of whom, be it remembered, are not British – note the last sentence of of PPN 9/11:

PPN 3/11 has therefore been withdrawn.

Even if you are contemplating revising guidelines, you do not simply junk the old ones, leaving a complete policy vacuum – that's just incompetent and dangerous from a management point of view. It means people don't really know what the rules are, and that's no way to run a government.

The existing open standards policy has been in place for nearly a year without causing the UK government's procurement to collapse in ruins, as far as I can tell, so what possible harm could there be in leaving it for a few more months while yet another consultation is carried out?

None, but clearly the lobbyists' power over the Cabinet Office is so great that they wanted to humiliate it to the maximum by making it withdraw – and thus effectively repudiate – its previous policy. Mao would have been proud of this abject and grovelling act of self-criticism.

I'm sorry to cast a pall over your imminent holidays, but I thought you'd like to know that all those claims by the coalition government that it would be open and fair, that procurement would be transparent, and that open source would be given a fair chance, will soon be definitively revealed to be nothing more than the usual empty, and ultimately insulting, politicians' promises that are never kept.

So "Happy" New Year: from 2012, true open standards will be dead in UK IT procurement.

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