10 years on, will the UK government’s latest policy pronouncement on open source and open standards prove any more successful than earlier attempts?

The Cabinet Office publication of a procurement policy note on open standards for government IT requirements is the latest in a long line of policy requirements concerning both open standards and open source.

In 2001, the Cabinet Office commissioned a study on open source and open standards, “Analysis of the Impact of OpenSource Software”.  With hindsight, the report seems optimistic:

“Within five years, 50% of the volume of the software infrastructure market could be taken by OSS”.

Elsewhere, it was more cautious:

“[we] recommend against any preference for OSS on the desktop, but also recommend that this issue be reassessed by the end of 2002, by which time early trials of the use of OSS desktops may have generated sufficient evidence to warrant a reassessment”

The report also recognised the dangers of lock-in and over-dependence on proprietary standards from dominant suppliers:

“This report argues that many of the Government’s risks that arise from over-dependence on proprietary free protocols and data formats for interoperability can be controlled by the selective use of open data standards.”

Also:

“This report concludes that OSS has shown that access to software’s source code is a major enabler of flexibility, and hence reduces legacy problems considerably. The report recommends that the Government obtain full rights to bespoke software that it procures – this includes any customisation of off-the-shelf software packages.”

In 2002, the government published its first open source policy. Its key policy commitments were:

  • UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.
  • UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.
  • UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.
  • UK Government will consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.
  • UK Government will explore further the possibilities of using OSS as the default exploitation route for Government funded R&D software.

The Cabinet Office also established its e-Government Interoperability Framework (eGIF) to help work with suppliers, academia and industry to agree the open standards that should be used in all government procurements. That regime developed as far as including an accreditation regime to ensure open standards expertise and competence both in the IT industry and amongst individual practitioners.

In 2004, “OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE Use within UK Government” was published. It reiterated government policy as follows:

  • UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.
  • UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.
  • UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.
  • UK Government will consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.
  • Publicly funded R&D projects which aim to produce software outputs shall specify a proposed software exploitation route at the start of the project. At the completion of the project, the software shall be exploited either commercially or within an academic community or as OSS.

After an early burst of enthusiasm, as the Cabinet Office replaced the Office of the e-Envoy with the new office of the CIO, the emphasis on open source and open standards seems to have waned. After this time, eGIF appears to have become largely dormant with no updates to its open standards since 2005; and there is little if any evidence that the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) ensured any level of compliance with the procurement mandates set out by the policy. It was thus largely a paper policy with little substance.

It was not until 2009 that Tom Watson MP (then Minister for Digital Engagement), revisited and re-energised the policy. “Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use:  Government Action Plan” was, as the name suggests, intended to ensure that what had long been government policy on paper was given new impetus. Its key objectives were to:

  • ensure that the Government adopts open standards and uses these to communicate with the citizens and businesses that have adopted open source solutions
  • ensure that open source solutions are considered properly and, where they deliver best value for money (taking into account other advantages, such as re-use and flexibility) are selected for Government business solutions.
  • strengthen the skills, experience and capabilities within Government and in its suppliers to use open source to greatest advantage.
  • embed an „open source‟ culture of sharing, re-use and collaborative development across Government and its suppliers, building on the re-use policies and processes already agreed within the CIO Council, and in doing so seek to stimulate innovation, reduce cost and risk,  and improve speed to market.
  • ensure that there are no procedural barriers to the adoption of open source products within government, paying particular regard to the different business models and supply chain relationships involved.
  • ensure that systems integrators and proprietary software suppliers demonstrate the same flexibility and ability to re-use their solutions and products as is inherent in open source.

And 10 years on, January this year has seen the publication of the latest note on open source and open standards in procurement.

There are few published government sources that demonstrate the success of this decade of policies and therefore whether open standards and open source adoption has been successful. Anecdotal evidence from suppliers, small and large alike, suggests that little if anything of significance has changed over the last decade.

Throughout the last 10 years there has been a persistent fault line between government policy aspiration and its implementation. The years between around 2005 and 2009 also seem to have seen a notable absence of focus on key policy areas, such as  open standards and open source. The new procurement policy note repeats earlier positive aspirations about open source and open standards. Presumably this time it will need to be enforced through OGC procurement notices and in terms of compliance at contract level. So that its impact can be independently verified, details should be published online about the number of procurements complying with the policy, and measuring the penetration of proprietary versus open systems and solutions.

Policy pronouncements alone clearly count for nothing if they are not enforced or monitored. The real test will be to measure the progress and impact of the latest policy commitments over the next few years. Key to this will be to see what mechanisms the Cabinet Office puts into place to ensure compliance. Past efforts have failed. Now let’s see if the lessons have been learned and the government can finally ensure long-standing policy commitments can move beyond mere paper words.

Summary of key open source and open standards documents:

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