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Government takes action on open technology

Graham Taylor Published 10 March 2011

Government takes action on open technology

Graham Taylor , chief executive officer of Open Forum Europe, applauds the government's recent moves on open source and open standards

It's been an interesting few weeks in regard to open source. From being what in the past I classified a 'laggard' (that was the polite form) in Europe, the UK government is now intent on matching its Action Plan on Open Source, Open Standards and Re-use with....well, action! And in doing so it has shamed some other European countries that have been content to limit deliverables to a paper strategy.

Matching strategy with practice has proved not easy, and delivery in the form of a procurement process and contracts provides a highly visible sign of commitment and a way of directly influencing the market. With its £16.9bn spend, government is by a long way the single largest purchaser of IT, and in the UK over 60% of all central government IT contracts are in the hands of only 12 outsourcers/integrators. As a result of poor past practice and lock-in, many authorities and departments will find it difficult to take advantage of new advances in ICT without taking difficult decisions now.

We have seen three key actions. Firstly, publication of a Procurement Policy Note on use of open standards when specifying ICT requirements, which not only recommends that they "should whenever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications", but defines what it means as an open standard. This is in contrast to the European Commission's European Introperability Framework (EIF) (v2), which ducked the controversial issue of intellectual property royalties and used uncertain language in claiming to support both proprietary and open source software.

The government has stuck with the message of the previous version of the EIF and reasserted the need that technologies based on open standards "should be made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis". This would clearly ensure a level playing field for open source software and maximising the opportunity for interoperability and re-use. It has also recognised the need for fora/consortia one step ahead of the Commission's standardisation review which is now under way. It is clear that many other governments, while accepting the broad provisions of the EIF, are doing the same and have said they want a stronger position than the Commission's compromise.

Secondly, the government's deputy chief information officer, Bill McCluggage, has held a meeting with all major systems integrators (SIs), which Open Forum Europe attended as an advisor. McCluggage made the government's thinking and what was expected of the SIs crystal clear. Three key points emerged:
€Â¢ Update the procurement process (and we know that guidelines on open source are under preparation in addition to those on open standards);
€Â¢ Educate the user (a challenging activity but discussions are continuing, and OFE has agreed to set up an advisory panel);
€Â¢ Expect systems integrators to supply technologies based on open standards.

It was clear from the tone of the discussion that these comments had substance, and to me it was clear from the body language that the SIs left knowing what was expected of them, and feeling positive about the plans and sharing of practical thinking. Subsequent press articles have questioned this and inevitably some SIs will be less than happy with any change in the status quo. But all of them will realise soon enough that if the customer wants something then they have a choice meet the need or don't bid.

Clearly, the legacy from the past is enormous, and SIs share many of the problems and restrictions that government is seeking to overcome.

Finally, the publication of the Open Standards Survey, which opens up the plans covering some 270 possible or projected standards (not all open), along with the definition of open standards, and invites crowdsourcing from interested organisations and citizens. The survey was announced by Bill McCluggage at the ODF Plugfest , sending a strong message of support to the open standards community across Europe. Open document exchange formats will inevitably be an area for important debate, and one where we can expect to see government determination to lead by example being put to the test.

Why is the government acting now? Opening up procurement to SMEs is attractive, as is the wish to maximise competitive choice in the market. But the pressure to deliver financial savings is also prominent, and all the evidence is that open source underpinned by open standards will do precisely that.

So has the government got it right? I think yes. It is absolutely right to stick with a clear definition of an open standard, and what the market should do to adopt such standards. It is also being pragmatic in recognising that we don't live in Utopia and that many standards in use are not ideal, but we should accept them when inevitable and develop a plan to move to the next version whenever possible. The government is also being honest and transparent, and instead of doing deals behind close doors, or being open to lobbying pressure, it is involving the citizen opening up the data and getting the widest possible input.

The next tests will be in the publication of the government's overall ICT strategy, and the implementation of its architectural framework. It will be for other governments to follow the UK's lead and develop their own practical procurement processes and frameworks (some like Netherlands and Belgium are already there). Then at last we may have the basis for pan-European interoperability and code sharing. Maybe Utopia is possible after all?

Open Forum Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the use of open source and open standards in business and government.

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