Home / Getting beyond "free" - UK government uptake of open source

Getting beyond "free" - UK government uptake of open source

Misplaced priorities hampering UK government uptake of open source

According to a computing.co.uk article entitled Open Source: The government's commitment so far, most of the IT technology used in the UK government is still proprietary and comes from single vendors.

Open Source adoption by government agencies in the UK is progressing, but is still being hindered by a focus on "free as in gratis". Decisions based on cost-of-acquisition alone ignore the other real and more important values offered by open source, which are derived from "free as in freedom".

A policy was set out in 2004 to "level the playing field" for open source solutions in the UK government. Open source solutions are in use in a variety of departments there. Drupal powers the UK Cabinet Office website, among others. The open source policy statement was reiterated in 2009, 2010, and in October 2011 a new "Strategic Implementation Plan" (SIP) covered much of the same ground. Change has been slow to come, but things are looking promising.

The 2011 Strategic Implementation Plan includes an Open Source Procurement Toolkit to facilitate and help put into action the UK government's stated policy, "Where appropriate, Government will procure open source solutions."

"Free as in gratis" is not the point

So far, so good, but there's at least one problem. The Strategic Action Plan calls for open source solutions to be considered fairly against proprietary solutions based on "value for money and total cost of ownership".

Psychologically, the "free" in "free and open source software" is a huge trump. Dan Ariely, in the chapter of Predictably Irrational called "The Cost of Zero Cost", discussed the power of FREE! (as he calls it). One of the conclusions he comes to after a series of controlled experiments is that FREE! can blind us, to the point of irrationality, to the importance of other factors.

Proprietary software vendors understand this irrationality and in at least one case, have successfully offered one-time, 100% discounts on their software when threatened with a move to an open source alternative. The power of FREE! (right now!) blinded those involved to the long-term consequences and costs of future license- and upgrade fees, as well as being locked in to proprietary formats, which can force further investment in proprietary solutions.

Simon Phipps, writing on opensource.com says,

"The fact that open source software can be obtained without payment of a license fee is a cruel distraction from the real values."

Jeff Eaton made the same point this year at the Do it With Drupal conference,

"[Open source software] just happens to have a zero price tag, you're still responsible for it."

Both Phipps and Eaton make the point that focusing on a price of zero undermines the real values and strengths of open source solutions like Drupal. Eaton goes on to present better arguments for adopting open source, calling FREE! the worst one on the list.

Focus on the real values of open source

Here are some values that proprietary software cannot offer based on the very definition of open source itself:

  • Use it: You are free to use open source for anything, anywhere, no matter what. In the restaurant business, they say, "You gotta own the bricks." Do you want your government basing its services on something that it has no control over, has to pay for over and over again, that others can arbitrarily turn off, change or charge more for?
  • Study it: You are free to understand what you are getting, no hidden surprises. As Eaton puts it, "The bad dies or the bad gets fixed." Quality and security are common outcomes of transparency.
  • Modify it: You control your destiny. With open source you have the freedom to build what you need when you need it. If a proprietary solution is buggy, it might never be fixed. If it only does 80% of what you need, when do you get the other 20%? Your priorities might not match the proprietary developer's product roadmap.
  • Share it: You are free to reuse the best solutions out there. Improve efficiency by building on the shoulders of giants. If you start with an 80% solution based on the work of the Drupal community and build the very best solution for your organization, you can pass it on to your colleagues, other departments, or the whole world.

It's getting better all the time

Government agencies and departments in the UK are beginning to focus on the real value propositions offered by open source. For instance, the UK government held consultations in 2011 on adopting open standards and intends to have in place a core set of open standards by June 2012. This is a big step in the right direction. The CIO and senior responsibility officer for open source and open standards of the UK Home Office, Robin Pape, contends that, "Open standards are the real enabler for change." Proprietary solutions are not traditionally focused on these standards–or are actively against them–and Pape concludes, "Open source software is part of the opportunity that arises [from their adoption]."

2012 is looking good for public-sector open source software adoption in the UK.

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