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20 March 2009, 11:38

Health Check: Open Source and the UK Government

A Memorandum of Misunderstanding

by Richard Hillesley

Despite the UK governments continued insistence that it is in favour of open source, in practice the opposite seems to be true. Many officials and departments are still highly resistant and display a remarkably hostile and dismissive attitude to open source. The H asked Richard Hillesley to examine the evidence.

Glyn Moody
Source: Stuart Yeates (CC-BY-SA)
Recently Glyn Moody and Richard Steel, who is both the president of SocITM (the Society of local government IT Managers) and CIO of the London Borough of Newham, had a minor spat across their respective blogs at ComputerWorld, provoked by Steel's response to to the UK government's newly announced policy for the adoption and promotion of open source - Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan. It was a bit like listening to Richard Stallman talking to a patent official.

Moody was incensed by Steel's declaration that he didn't like - the term "Open Source". It's misleading; what many people mean is "anything but Microsoft"; few businesses actually use open source directly – they buy software derived from open source that has been commercially packaged and sold with support, which, in practice, is little different to licensed software.

and his strangely short-sighted and wildly inaccurate view that - "Open Source" software development, in my experience, lags proprietary development by several years. I don’t think we could achieve the anytime, anywhere fixed and mobile infrastructure with tele-presence we require, now, for flexible and new ways of working using only Open Source.

Richard Steelsmall.jpg
Richard Steel
Steel's comments are revealing. Despite regular statements of intent from the government and the backing of considerable forces within the computer industry, free and open source software solutions haven't really had a look-in in the British public sector.

No success like failure

His response is both a statement of defiance and an unconscious admission of the lack of adventure that characterises public sector procurement policy, and suggests that, irrespective of government policy and the stated policy of all the main political parties, open source is not an option that will receive a balanced assessment from IT managers in local government.

The persistent failure of the public sector to take advantage of open source is less the fault of the politicians and policy makers, who usually take the blame, than it is the fault of those who are paid to put the policy into practice.

British governments of all flavours have had a poor record with IT. History suggests that attempts to audit and control large government software projects often result in counter-productive log jams and further increases in expenditure. Despite an abysmal record of failure EDS, for example, continues to soak up billions of pounds on government contracts, and remains relatively sanguine about its future prospects.

The establishment of the Office of the e-Envoy in 1999 was an attempt to break with the tradition of failure by creating a central office close to the heart of government to co-ordinate IT policy, to encourage standards and promote the Blairite mantra of "joined-up government". As such, the function of the e-Envoy's office, later replaced by the E-Government Unit in September 2004 (and now the Chief Information Officer Council), was to research and promote standards in computing, working in conjunction with the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the body which develops policy on government procurement.

The trouble is that procurement policy has been beset by a paradoxical "safety first" policy of reliance on "trusted suppliers" and "risk aversion", even where this has resulted in massive failure. This conundrum is recognised by suppliers of open source software. John Powell, CEO of Alfresco, told The H that "there is enormous positive discrimination towards Microsoft in the UK ... Civil servants tend to be measured on failure rather than success" and look for the large companies as "a single arse to kick".

Too often, procurement policy is led by the need to offset blame. The bigger the company involved, the better. Even Jerry Fishenden, Microsoft UK's lead technologist, is moved to point out: "Despite the government's stated intention of awarding 30 per cent of contracts to SMEs, the top 20 IT suppliers account for over 70 per cent of all spending. And yet 64 per cent of commercial innovations come from small firms..."

Next: Yes, minister

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