UK Government move into action with Open Source and Open Standards

 

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

 

Matching strategy with practice has proved not to be easy, and delivery in the form of Procurement processes and contracts placed by the public sector provides not only a highly visible sign of commitment, but actually is how, if you want to change practice, you can directly influence the market. Government is with its £16.9 billion ICT spend 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/departments will find it difficult to easily take advantage of new functional and technological advances in ICT, without taking difficult decisions now.

 

We have seen three key actions made by UKG. 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 then defines what it means as an open standard. Unlike the EC's European Introperability Framework (v2) which ducked the controversial issue of IPR royalties and which proposed in uncertain language terms which claimed to support both proprietary and open source software. UKG has stuck with the previous version and have reinforced the need that “ ...they should be made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis”, thus clearly ensuring a level playing field for Open Source software and maximising the opportunity for interoperability and re-use. They have also recognised the need for fora/consortia – one step ahead of the EC standardisation review now underway. It is clear that many other Governments, whilst accepting the broad provisions of EIF, are doing the same and have said 'we want a stronger position' than the EC compromise document chose to deliver.

 

Secondly this week in a meeting with all major SIs, and which OFE attended as an advisor, the Deputy CIO, Bill McCluggage made crystal clear what UKG thinking was and what was expected of them. His slides can be seen here (PDF or ODP) (he expressly said he was happy for them to be circulated), but three key points emerged

  • Update the procurement process (and in addition to the open standards guideline we know guidelines on open source are under preparation)

  • Educate the user (a challenging activity but discussions are continuing, and OFE has agreed to set up an Advisory Panel – more on this shortly)

  • Expect Systems Integrators to supply (and how they intended to monitor /act on this)

 

Having participated in that meeting it was clear from the tone of the talk and the discussion that these were not comments made without substance, and to me it was clear from the body language that the SIs themselves left not only clear what was expected of them, but actually were very positive about the plans and practical thinking that had been shared. Subsequent press articles have questioned this and inevitably some SIs will be less than happy to 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 resulting that Government themselves are seeking to overcome.

 

And finally today the publication of the Open Standards Survey, which opens up the plans covering some 270 possible/projected standards (not all open), as well as the definition, and inviting crowd-sourcing from all interested organisations and citizens. The Survey was announced by Bill McCluggage at the 5th ODF Plugfest , being held for the first time in the UK, in itself 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 are UKG acting now? Clearly the drive to open up procurement to SMEs is attractive, as is the wish to maximise competitive choice in the market. But clearly the pressure to deliver financial savings is prominent – now as well as in the medium/long term – and all the evidence is that Open Source underpinned by Open Standards will do precisely that.

 

So has the UK got it right with their strategy? I think yes. It is absolutely right to stick with a clear definition of what an Open Standard is, and what it expects the market to be doing to move forward to adopting such standards. It is also being pragmatic in recognising that we don't live in utopia and that today many standards in use are not ideal, so lets accept them when inevitable and develop a plan to move to the next open version whenever possible. Its 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 test will be in publication both of the Government's overall ICT strategy, and in publication and implementation of its Architectural Framework. Outside UK it will be for other Governments to follow UK's lead (some like Netherlands and Belgium are already there) and develop their own practical procurement processes and frameworks. Then at last we may have the basis for true pan European interoperability and code sharing. Maybe utopia is possible after all?

 

Graham Taylor

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