Government levels the playing field for Open Source

Bit late with this but there’s a change of policy on Open Source. I’d be really grateful for your ideas, views and constructive criticism.

17 thoughts on “Government levels the playing field for Open Source”

  1. Don’t tell anybody, Tom, but you’ve only got a few months left in government. Do you honestly think anybody gives 2 hoots what your ‘Open Source’ policy is?

  2. Open source is not cheaper to run than 90’s software and it is arguable whether it is any better. However you only pay when the software delivers business benefit to you.

    There is no initial license fee, no license cost during the development lifecycle, plenty of grassroots support, adherence to open standards, no cost in experimentation, etc. etc. The UK Governments change of policy has been reported widely around the world including on Buzz Out Loud yesterday ( and it has been wholeheartedly applauded by most pundits in the tech industry.

    2009 is absolutely the right time to be doing this sort of thing. We need to confront the heroin selling model of the world’s largest software vendors. They get you hooked and you end up paying for decades. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

  3. Some interesting thoughts there Alex, ‘selling free software’ always sounds counter-intuitive though, no?!

    I think this is a very good step forward, although at the same time I hope it isn’t just a euphemism for ‘anyone but Microsoft’.

    Using Open Standards has dramatic upsides, however sometimes the real cost of deployment can be much higher than proprietary software that is generally extensible by well documented API’s.

    Alex’s point about Copyright Ownership is well founded. I’ve also worked with organisations who were keen to own copyright/IP, somehow thinking they were going to shift from widget manufacturing to a software house and it’s mostly counter-productive to the projects as a whole; it’s never going to happen and effectively you remove the software providers motivation to improve a product through reselling core components (often for radically different purposes – a good program can be / is abstracted from the specifics of an implementation to more general principles) which can then be rolled back into the original.

    Having said that, if a common framework can be developed, and agile developers/companies recruited to the cause, this should only be good news for tax-payer value for money. It’s an excellent statement of intent that hopefully will only stir innovation in the delivery of electronic Public Services. Well done HM Government 🙂

  4. Well done. This is significant step towards a necessary ‘FREEdom’. This sense of the word is far more important than the price meaning. Some thought must be given to how our culture of decision purely by accountancy (short terms at that) is going to deliver this benefit though.

    Are the Whitehall mafia (the ‘old’ families, Percey, Grey etc) really going to let you do this. Best keep an eye over your shoulder.

    Chris Jones, Romsey

  5. To reiterate and expand on what I’ve said elsewhere…

    While the focus on open source is commendable, the longevity of the tools are rarely the issue, more the data that’s produced and consumed by them. Obviously there’s plenty of crossover between the “open standards” bent of the new policy and the POIT stuff, but my experiences in the past suggest that a much bigger stick will be required to effect the sort of change we’re all looking for. Invariably, organisations (public and private sector alike) will follow a policy to the letter, but rarely embrace the spirit of it, though I’m not entirely sure on how best to tackle that (FoI is a good example of this, of course).

    For example, it’s all very well and good publishing a document as a PDF, but in many cases HTML would be even better. Similarly, an OpenDocument Text or Office Open XML .docx is fine for a source document (and documents should always be _archived_ in an editable but standard format), but less useful as a publishing format. The only real solution here is one of hedging bets, I think, taking the time to ensure that documents are archived and published in the most useful formats for later use, and if that means publishing in three different formats, so be it (plenty of this stuff can be automated, after all).

    After all, what happens when nobody has a PDF reader in 20 years’ time and has to dig through public digital archives? Having to run great big ‘restoration’ processes every decade or so isn’t exactly ideal, and can be avoided if we’re sensible now. Obviously, this is a good chunk of the thrust of the policy, but I think it needs emphasised somewhat.

    On balance, though, it’s a big step in the right direction.

  6. Well done Tom. Working for a small social enterprise that doesn’t have loads of dosh to pay for proprietary software Open Office, and other open source software, has been an absolute boon.

  7. I agree with Mo, there are two separate issues: using open source software, and storing data in an open format. The latter should be mandatory for government. It should not be possible for a sole supplier to hold government data hostage. Look at the way Microsoft obliges departments to upgrade their OS and copies of Word. If nobody has a PDF reader in 20 years it does not matter so much as it is an open format. Even OpenOffice can import PDF these days. However if it is in an encoded binary blob then that data is lost.

    Open Source software is a different matter. There are two advantages corresponding to the two freedoms it gives. The first is free as in beer. There are no licensing costs, and you can do support in-house or you can pay a 3rd party for support. Saving millions is no bad thing, but the real importance for government is free as in speech. Need a special feature? You can add it yourself. The original developers have disappeared but you still need the software and there is a bug? You have the source so you can fix it. The government starts having different needs to the original developers? Fork a copy and it is now all yours.

    The government could also sponsor open source projects, much like Google do at the moment. I quite happily pay for open source software to be written if it is something I need but it does not give me a particular competitive advantage. Sharing the cost of fixing bugs and adding the features is worth more than keeping the code proprietary. I am sure the government is in the same position.

    You may find this an interesting read by the way:


  8. Love the idea and but it’s laughable when someone says we sell free software. How can you sell free software? Free is free – i.e. no monies are exchanged. Who are they kidding? These companies make money from OSS, by providing a service such as advice, installation and support. I will be honest say I mainly make my living this way (I do some proprietary stuff). Just like everyone in this business I like to lock my clients to my services just as a proprietary company would do for their software.

    @Mo Wouldn’t it be great if every docs were in XML/HTML?

  9. Its all very well requiring the use of Open Source, however this is only a small part of the whole cost. There will still be billions wasted in ‘consultants’ and ‘contractors’ for every little job and feature request when it would be far cheaper to pay the community to do it. I doubt that many of these companies will roll back any changes they make to the software, preferring to simply keep them to themselves.

    I also don’t think it will help budget starved schools and colleges that can’t afford to hire these consultants and simply need help in their implementation and maintenance. Will there be any push to help these underfunded organisations to get help from the community? I doubt it.

    So overall, nothing will really change… the big consultancies will still get the money and the only thing that really changes will be original source of the software and the small gov funded projects and schools will still be starved of help.

  10. Get Becta to push it. If open-source is used in school, businesses and governmental organisations will have to follow as their workforce will be familiarised with non-commercial software.

    Good luck, though. I suspect many people in the public sector will dislike open-source, as they are only comfortable with Microsoft.

  11. Lets just hope its going to work and stop being so pesimistic about it. If its not going trough a big coorporation than whoever gets it better deliver the results we all wait for!

  12. I think Becta have already concluded (as many of you have) that the total cost of ownership makes it hardly any more attractive that the proprietary stuff… in schools at least.

  13. Good call. I don’t often agree with Labour, but this is a good move forwards.
    Mandating the usage of OSS where it meets the requirements over proprietary software would be better though. Why should we, the taxpayer, give money to (often overseas) companies for no actual tangible benefits. We don’t keep the rights, the source, all actual benefits stay with the company we pay. Often we’ll be socked in via closed structures (Office .doc is just the icebergs snarly tip)….

    Better that wherever possible, OSS should be used when it meets the required spec. (assuming said spec. isn’t “Is Windows”). Think of the billions of pounds it would save. Sure, there will still be wastage in the form of the consultant that pulls in far more than they should (something no one can explain to me; why a consultant gets paid more than the line-guys that often know just as much), but all them licensing costs will be gone, so you can still hire consultants and specialists galore (which will no doubt be “vital” since it’s all “different” now…puleeese!), and still come in under budget.

    Best of all, if HM Govt. create a source-management Agency to manage all officially used open-source, and put back into the community, the UK could be a leading light in the OSS world, which you might think will interest and excite only nerds like me, basking in the rays of their tft monitors in some basement somewhere, but actually a lot of BIG companies in IT are moving towards OSS, and if the UK had a large, stable workforce that have OSS skills and credentials, that could work in our favour when said companies are choosing locations….

    What more could a government ask for? It’s “hip”, it saves them money, it might help create jobs, and it’s spending money in the UK that’d otherwise go overseas…
    Where’s the downside?

  14. Open source is great for many purposes, but for serious public services, particularly those handling personal data, there is still a huge gap between today’s practice and the need to comply with first Data Protection and then that never implemented Cabinet Office Information Assurance policy (service quality and infosec). Get that policy out of its locked cabinet, Tom, get some competent people in to update it to cover not just on-line services but also passports, ID cards, transport ticketing, citizen service cards, health systems… Then give it to an enlarged Information Commissioner to police it under tough legislation that requires formal quality and security assessment of the organisations that deliver the services. Get the public sector out of its 1970 mentality into at least the late 1990s and then keep it moving: training, training, training, assessment, assessment, assessment. I hear that even SOCITM members are getting very worried about the general inability of our public sector to deliver the necessary quality of software and service management…

  15. i think people should really go for open souces soft, its just a matter of time until they get use to that, i am sure they not going to miss microsoft..
    payd softs have just as many bugs as open sources.. tell me anyone here never complained about “Windows” for example ?

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