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Are the UK Government Turning Their Backs on Open Standards and Open Source?

Posted on January 25, 2016 by Katie Olver (in Gov,Open Source,Public Sector).

Despite having policies on Open Standards and Open Source in place for nearly five years, over 90% of Government IaaS procurement is still based on proprietary software with non-standard interfaces from large US companies, Ken Smith from Memset explores.

The Government ICT Strategy, published March 2011 marked the start of an exciting new chapter in the Government’s IT agenda – enabling the Cabinet Office and central government departments to reform the way they procure, design and run IT-enabled business change.

Part of that strategy was a commitment from the government to “create a common and secure IT infrastructure based on a suite of compulsory open standards, adopting appropriate open standards wherever possible.”

The current reality though, nearly five years on, is that central government IT decision makers still seem to be hesitant about adopting new software solutions and are not following mandates of using Open Standards when dealing with IaaS providers.

 

Who’s Using Open Source and Open Standards?

Despite the government’s efforts to encourage department heads to engage with the right, smaller, agile suppliers of open source solutions via the G-Cloud’s Digital Marketplace and the above ongoing commitment to using open source and open standards, the Cabinet Office have confirmed that they do not actually record any sales data by open source or open standards categories.

Further, Govspend.org, the main independent publisher of G-Cloud spend figures, also do not record open source or open standards spend.

How is the government planning on evaluating the effectiveness of their ICT Strategy in respect to open source and open standards in government IT?

A quick investigation of IaaS sales via the published G-Cloud spend figures enables us to measure the proportion of sales, based on open source virtualization versus proprietary virtualization. At present it looks like the proportion of proprietary virtualization accounts for between 90% and 98% of G-Cloud sales. It is more difficult to establish an accurate estimate of the use of open standards in G-Cloud IaaS contracts but the percentage is very small.

 

Why We Need Open Standards

By implementing the Open Standards Principles for software interoperability and data and document formats, the government is hoping to facilitate the delivery of:

  • a level playing field for open source and proprietary software providers competing for government IT contracts
  • improved flexibility and ability for government to cooperate with other bodies, citizens and businesses
  • more sustainable cost in government IT projects 

Open standards also enable the breaking down of large IT contracts into smaller components, supporting the government’s IT strategy against contracts over £100 million.

Yet in reality the government’s procurement choices continue to result in a lack of diversity in existing government IT contracts and supplier lock-in, as well as sensitive British data being held with US suppliers, particularly worrying in light of the CJEU’s invalidation of the Safe Harbor framework.

 

Simply a Box Ticking Exercise?

According to the Open Standards Principles documentation - compulsory open standards must be specified by government bodies unless an exemption is agreed through a “comply or explain” process.

On the Digital Marketplace there is a tick box for “Open Standards Supported and Documented” so customers can use this factor when searching for their shortlist of services (and according to the Open Standards principles should do so by default). 

However as the purchasing process is separate, there is no way of tracking how many purchased services adhere to Open Standards. Is it simply a box ticking exercise when purchasing via G-Cloud?

 

In Conclusion

There has been widespread acknowledgement of the bureaucratic procurement process being a blocker to the adoption of open source. But if the Government is serious about adopting open standards, and helping UK based businesses (especially SMEs) the procurement process will need to change - at present it continues to favour large, mainly US-based business with proprietary solutions and higher prices.

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