Government IT: Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source
Published 15:37, 04 June 10
As the UK's new Government settles into power the direction in which it is taking ICT policy is becoming clear, the only question is how the admittedly great ideas will be implemented in practice.
Much informed analysis has indentified that despite the counter-intuitive pairing of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, they are in fact closely compatible in many policy areas.
ICT policy is one such area, and by far the majority of the excellent policy ideas from both party's manifestoes have made it through to official UK Government policy.
Let's start with a lightning tour of the big picture. Austerity is, of course, set to become the watchword for the coalition, and with Public Sector ICT spending running at over £14,500,000,000 per annum and rising some might say austerity is long overdue in this area.
The chosen high-level strategic approach would appear to be the three Opens - Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source.
Of course, over the tenure of the previous UK Government, ICT was centralised like never before. The vast majority of central Government spending went to the same old 11 players. Spending in the wider Public Sector was deliberately focused on official 'procurement lists', lists which were notoriously difficult for any but the largest companies to gain a place on.
In short the Public Sector was, shall we say, 'encouraged' to purchase proprietary software from a highly select group of large companies. This proprietary legacy software also deliberately ignored Open Standards for the most part, and worked hard at making sure data paid for by the taxpayer remained locked away in it's digital vaults for all eternity (or at least for the next few 'essential' upgrades).
The new UK Government, predictably, takes a market approach that should work (I am ignoring for the moment supply-side measures such as opening up data on where public money is spent and with who).
The two pillars of the approach are:
1) Placing at least 25% of Public Sector ICT spending with SMEs.
2) Creating a 'level playing field' for Open Source software.
If they mean it, and if they turn words into actions, prepare for a flowering in British innovation and creativity alongside those spending cuts... we may even see the return of and independent British ICT industry.
But here's the problem:
As I have already mentioned, the entire UK Public Sector has deliberately been trained to be risk-averse, to shun SMEs in favour of the IT Giants, and to buy their ICT solutions from official 'procurement lists'. Changing this culture will not be easy, and will certainly not be simply a matter of pronoucements and prescriptions.
Do you know how many Open Source companies their are on Government procurement lists? (we are not counting proprietary software companies that will throw together a web server on Linux if you insist).
The answer is either one or zero.
Whatever else they may or may not have done, Becta (in conjunction with the OGC) were the first in the UK to appoint a genuine Open Source company to a Government procurement list.
With their impending demise an unintentional early result of Government policy may have been a reverse in the first tiny step towards 'levelling the playing field for Open Source'.
The OGC's first response is positive however, and it appears that the Becta procurement lists will live on under the OGC's Aegis after all...
In short, there is a long way to go yet. If the new policy is to translate into the day-to-day world that Government departments, Local Authorities, the NHS, Schools and other Public Sector organisations inhabit there is work still to do. It will require a new approach to procurement, clear new rules, and a huge culture change.
It would probably help if more Public Sector organisations knew there was such a thing as Open Source companies and that it is now ok to buy from us too. To underestimate this task would be a mistake, but the rewards if it can be achieved must also not be underestimated - ICT is a huge, rising and ongoing cost area and savings here would help keep more of those crucially important front line services away from the axe - Big Society vs Big ICT Spending?
Strong leadership, a real action plan, and a few great reference sites would help...