At the heart of open government’s digital future

There are still those who consider open source to be a marginal option, less secure than proprietary software and not as good as the big, branded software packages – but their day has long gone.

Open source software is a core component across enterprises and government. Indeed, it feels strange to think it was once viewed as unorthodox. Companies now routinely mix both proprietary and open source software as a means of lowering the cost of IT and stimulating innovation.

Until recently, government was behind that particular curve, yet open source played a crucial role in understanding why government IT projects were so big, complex and expensive. The treatment of open source by government IT departments in the first decade of this century identified many areas of misunderstanding in strategy, architecture, delivery and procurement. It also showed a way to radically lower the cost base for government IT. And this needed to come down – in 2009, industry experts such as Kable [market intelligence] showed that, across the public sector, IT costs were approximately 1 per cent of GDP.

We firmly believe that establishing a level playing field for open source and proprietary software changes that dynamic and unlocks efficiencies

The Coalition Agreement in 2010 was the first programme for government to carry a detailed technical objective: “We will create a level playing field for open source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.”

Too often, government contracts adopted a default position of using a small number of large IT suppliers – the “oligopoly” – on long-term contracts.

The result was a lack of competition for our contracts, poor value for money and high levels of vendor lock-in. That lock-in often included uncompetitive software deals – deals we have recently renegotiated to release tens of millions of pounds in savings.

We firmly believe that establishing a level playing field for open source and proprietary software changes that dynamic and unlocks efficiencies. It creates a much needed competitive tension in our procurements and opens up innovation.

It also enables government to be an intelligent customer, so that we can break up uncompetitive contracts, place ourselves in control of our IT architecture and reduce the cost of government IT.

We have shown this year that disaggregating black-box system integrator contracts into smaller multi-supplier contracts saves us up to 30 per cent. To date, for 2012/13, we are booking £400 million in savings from our spend controls process as we drive through that change.

Now, all government departments use open source to some degree and intend to build on that base. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stand out as leaders and in some large operational departments there is now a strong presence – for example, 30 per cent of Revenue and Customs (HMRC) IT is open source.

We have undertaken a programme of myth-busting to address unfounded concerns around the security of open source software and taken steps to address any requirements specifications that unfairly preclude open source – or proprietary – software. We have also published our open source tool kit to provide guidance to the procurement and IT communities so we can address capability issues in departments.

But use of open source is about more than back-office efficiency – it is also at the heart of our commitment to deliver public services designed around the needs of citizens: digital services that deliver better services for less money.

The future of government is not about IT – actually we have to fall out of love with IT. It is about digital public services. The first stages of constructing this digital government were completed earlier this month with the launch of GOV.UK.

As my colleague Mike Bracken, who leads the Government Digital Service (GDS), explained at the launch of the beta version of GOV.UK in February, this open government platform is “inherently flexible, best of breed and completely modular”.

For the inquisitive, GDS has published its technology stack here:

This is the future of government – and it is based on open standards and open source. 

Liam Maxwell combines his role as deputy government chief information officer (CIO) with that of director of ICT futures at the Cabinet Office where he is responsible for devising new ways for the public sector to use technology to increase efficiency and reduce cost; he has also worked as head of computing at Eton College.