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27 September 2010, 12:54

Calls for action on UK Government Open Source

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At last weeks Westminster eForum, participants called for more action from the UK Government on the adoption of open source by public authorities. Keynote speaker at at the event, FSFE President Karsten Gerloff, pointed out that, according to Gartner, open source has a "100% adoption rate" meaning there are no companies or authorities that don't use open source to some degree. Gerloff wanted to see more focus on the longer term benefits of open source, even though there was a current focus from governments on cost saving. He later exclaimed "Get going already!" in his blog, calling Britain "the sick man of Europe in terms of Free Software adoption".

Among the other speeches at the event, Glyn Moody's speech that emphasised that open source and open standards were good for everyone was well received as was Alan Lord of the Open Learning Centre (OLC) who spoke of the challenges faced by small, medium and large organisations implementing Free and Open Source Software.

The obstacles currently facing advocates of public use of open source are rarely anything to do with the software itself. As Mark Taylor of Sirius IT pointed out in his speech, the top five companies take 80% of the governments IT spending. In the US, this figure is 50% and in the Netherlands as low as 20%. This means that UK Government IT projects is centered around these incumbent companies, who have historically supplied proprietary software.

Another problem is the lack of open document standards within government. Bristol city councillor Mark Wright explained that even when the council attempted to migrate to using StarOffice and ODF document formats in 2004, interchanging documents between other agencies and authorities still tended to be done using Microsoft based doc and docx formats. Although the council was still pushing forward with open source software based plans, he expected to keep hitting this issue until the government mandated the use of open formats like ODF in local authorities and levelled the playing field. Wright noted it was simple to install OpenOffice on every PC the council used anyway because there were no licensing fees to worry about.

Some speakers noted that only the day before the eForum, the government CIO had announced that it would be making moves to break up larger government contracts into smaller chunks which could be addressed by SME open source and proprietary suppliers. To do that though, they would have to be an approved supplier and earlier in the day Mark Taylor had pointed to his own company's fight to get onto the IGC procurement list of government approved suppliers and how that may dissuade other SMEs from bringing open source expertise to the governments IT projects.

Even with that hurdle overcome, without an open data interchange format, it was likely these moves would not change the mix of open source and proprietary software. The general mood was that the previous Labour government had, despite well intentioned policy documents, not managed to fix the procurement issue and that it was incumbent on the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government to deliver on promises and statements made during the election, especially as they looked to make 25% cost savings across all government departments.

Note: An error in an earlier version of this article which misreported Glyn Moody has been corrected in this version.


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