UK Government pushes for open standards and open source software

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March 1 2011




Central UK Government pushes for open standards and open source software while regional bodies remain locked into closed, proprietary computer systems


Three new government initiatives in the field of open public sector computing in the past month show that at a national level at least, the UK is one of the strongest supporters of open standards and open source software in Europe.

Unfortunately at grass roots level local governments around the UK remain stubbornly wedded to proprietary computer systems that lock them and their citizens' data into closed computer systems.

The difference in attitude towards openness in computing between national and local level was strikingly clear last Friday at the 5th Open Document Format (ODF) Plugfest held in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

At the national level Bill McCluggage, Deputy CIO of the Cabinet Office announced a public survey of views on open standards, which among other things asks respondents to review the recently published definition of an open standard, and to give their views on a host of standards currently used by public sector bodies in the UK. The results of the survey will feed into a report to be published in the autumn.

The survey was unveiled a few days after the Cabinet Office met with systems integrators and called on them to offer computing solutions based on open standards and open source where possible. Two weeks earlier the Cabinet Office sent a formal memo to all government agencies involved in IT procurement, recommending for them to choose open standards where possible, and to work with smaller suppliers in future, instead of handing out mega-contracts to individual suppliers.

However, this positive message from central government has yet to materialize at local level throughout the UK. Local Governments generally still seem detached from the opportunity to gain significant financial and citizen benefit.

Mark Wright, a Councillor from Bristol with responsibility for ICT described Bristol's experience implementing ODF. Having opted for the Open Document Format in 2004, Bristol have selectively been forced to switch back to use some of the proprietary software it used before. Wright claimed limited success only because Bristol suffered interoperability problems when communicating both with local offices and with central government. and because certain software suppliers didn't offer products based on the ODF open standard, Wright said.

“The unfortunate experience of Bristol illustrates how hard it is for local governments to break free of software lock-in,” said Graham Taylor, CEO of Openforum Europe (OFE), adding: “We hope this will start to change once the more determined policy drive from the Cabinet Office starts to take effect.”

In addition to the procurement memo about applying open standards, another set of guidelines concerning the use of open source software is in the pipeline.

OFE welcomes the government's drive to choose open standards where possible, and to open up IT procurement to smaller suppliers. This will help SMEs and ensure greater competitive choice in the market, Taylor said.

But he was clear that the biggest potential benefit the government aims to achieve over the short and medium term through its new approach to ICT procurement are the financial savings to be made from choosing Open Source underpinned by Open Standards.

OFE believes the UK Government's approach is a good one. “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,” he said. “ The definition chosen is succinct and leaves no doubt in readers minds that a level playing field for all business models, including open source, is essential.

“It is also being pragmatic in recognizing 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.”

ODF Plugfests have been held in numerous locations in Europe in recent years . The event in Maidenhead was the first of its kind to take place in the UK, making it an ideal platform for central government to speak to the community of open source and open standards developers.

Delegates welcomed the new focus on openness from central government and the recognition of the significant benefits that open source software such as that based on the Open Document Format.

However, many doubted that this positive impetus from the centre would be enough to push local and regional governments around the UK to adopt open IT systems.

The two-day plugfest saw some notable technical advances made in the area of text wrapping and cloud computing. For more details please see the full summary document attached.

For further information please contact Graham Taylor, CEO of OFE +44 7713 593217

or Paul Meller, research and communications director of OFE +32 497 322 966


Notes to editors:

OpenForum Europe (OFE) is not-for-profit, independent of any organisation. and was originally launched in March 2002 to accelerate, broaden and strengthen the use of Open Source Software in business and government. OFE's role has now expanded and is a strong supporter of Open Standards and Openness and pursues the vision of facilitating open competitive choice for IT users. OFE is supported by major IT suppliers, user organisations and national partners.


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