Government seeks to define basis for software adoption

A government committee is preparing to reveal its definition of open standards to level the playing field for implementing open source software alongside proprietary applications, writes Mark Ballard

The Coalition Government laid out plans to re-evaluate, renegotiate and open up its information technology relationships with vendors shortly after it was elected. This massive cost-cutting effort was applied with gusto, but then it stalled.

Now, two-and-a-half years on, what happens next will depend on the results of a public consultation. The government’s dilemma is how to implement the policy. The question for the consultation is what “open” in open standards and open source really means.

The premise was that the IT market had become stagnant. Projects were expensive because government was using so few companies to run them and to supply the technology to be implemented. This lack of competition, the government contended, had inflated prices and public IT projects were disastrous because the technology options had become stagnant. This lack of competition had stifled innovation.

The government proposed a two-part solution in its Coalition Agreement in 2010. It would inject a breath of fresh air through government datacentres by backing open source technologies wherever they offered cheaper implementation and innovation. It also planned to shake up the market by breaking down big IT projects into smaller components, which could be handled by a larger number of suppliers, and not just the major proprietary vendors of the past.

Liam Maxwell, deputy government chief information officer at the Cabinet Office, insists the government is still committed to this policy. “We spend a large amount of money on IT in government because we have for years spent our money with the same old crew – which my minister refers to as the ‘oligopoly’ – under large, long-term contracts,” he says.

The future of government is open source

Setting his ideas out in a 2010 report for The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, a Cameron administration think-tank, Mr Maxwell says government IT had become so expensive that its total expenditure was more than the entire public budget for Wales or more than the Ministry of Justice and Income Support budgets combined.

“Have we got value from IT?” asks Mr Maxwell. “We don’t think we have. “When we break up the big, black box contracts – disaggregate them into their component parts – we are looking at savings of 20 to 30 per cent,” he says.

Mr Maxwell believes the government has made progress. The Cabinet Office has saved £400 million this year by disaggregating contracts that have come up for renewal. It has also been deploying open source software where it can. The Government Digital Service also launched an early version of a website called GOV.UK which was built using open source software.

“The future of government is open source,” he says. “GOV.UK is all open source. It’s the publishing platform for the future of government.”

Yet the centrepiece of government policy – the piece that brings it all together – has still to be settled; namely, its policy on open standards.

Both coalition proposals – to promote alternative technology and to break projects into smaller parts – begged for a way to glue the parts together. There would be little point in breaking projects up if it only made them so disparate it created a different problem.

In the first place, the original difficulties that gave rise to the limited IT ecosystem derived from technology’s inherent need for its parts to work together as a coherent system. This was achieved by using specific standards of communication so one part of the system could co-operate with another, sharing applications, functions and data.

The problem was that the market had coagulated into competing islands of technology based on proprietary standards. Dominant vendors used their standards tool kit to lock competitors out, stagnating the market and making open source harder to integrate.

The coalition proposed it would place government functions and data in the broadest possible ecosystem to ensure no single supplier or technology was so powerful that it could not be swapped with any other. In this way, contracts could be disaggregated and dominant suppliers replaced without causing problems for existing systems, paving the way for open source software to be deployed because it would not be hamstrung by proprietary standards and protocols.

The government would do this by employing open standards – protocols and connections that could be used by any market participant and implemented in any technology without constraint.

Following discussions with leading vendors and stakeholders in the IT market, including the British Standards Institution and International Standards Organisation, the coalition decided to form the Open Standards: Open Opportunities Flexibility and Efficiency in Government IT committee to define what an open standard might be in context with its plans for open source implementation.

A key consideration is whether open standards should include those for which a royalty fee is charged. This would include consideration of software that contains some proprietary code, but is otherwise open. Examples of these would be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) standards which are usually core elements of an application. These are essential, particularly for initiating communications protocols and because of this are charged for at non-premium prices.

This is a contentious area because purist open source advocates specify that no licensable material should be used in the software.

The UK policy was designed to create a level playing field for all companies, large and small, with interests in supplying services and products to the government IT strategy, especially the move to a cloud environment (G-Cloud). Unfortunately, it was swept up in the international tussle between the interests of powerful proprietary technology companies and their open source competitors. The result will determine the blueprint for the future, based on the conclusions reached by the government’s Open Standards: Open Opportunities inquiry which is due to report its findings.

How much it will save also depends on this outcome. Estimates range from £600 million to billions of pounds but, whatever the sum, the true victory would be a freeing up of the stagnated government IT ecosystem to allow new blood in.

It remains to be seen if this island will be home to truly open standards which will pave the way to a harmonious blend of open source and proprietary software.