Her Majesty’s Government & Open Source
by Nikki Tyson
In a country where cynicism is a national pastime, we often greet government “policies” on open source adoption with more than a raised eyebrow and I must admit I was ready to do the same when I spotted the following tweet from Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius, over the weekend:
Haven’t we been here before?
I’m not professing to be a public sector expert, but I’ve been round the block long enough with open source software (OSS) and the UK Government to recall a number of similar sounding “initiatives”, “guidelines”, “principles” and “policies” communicated by central government under the present and previous regimes. Anyone who is old enough to have watched “Yes Minister” or more recently “The Thick of It” will know what I am talking about!
I can recall vividly a number of entertaining press briefing calls when I was working at Alfresco. John Powell, former-CEO and co-founder, has a marvellous interview style and was never shy of expressing his opinion to the UK press on the topic of central government’s reticence to realise the benefits of OSS - usually involving the phrase “as a taxpayer ...”
If countries on both sides of the Atlantic have been reaping the rewards (technical and financial) of OSS for many years now, why did the UK still stand out as one of the last bastions of the proprietary licensing model? I remember an article (circa 2010) about BRIC nations adoption of OSS, in which one Brazilian government spokesperson asked somewhat aghast (and I paraphrase) “Why wouldn’t you use OSS as a default?”
Does it have legs?
According to Bryan Glick's article in Computer Weekly the signs are positive and this is apparently the furthest any UK Government policy has gone in expressing a preference for OSS. I’m inserting a big chunk here because I really like seeing this in print:
The new Government Service Design Manual, released as a beta version on 14 March and effective from April, lays out the standards that must be used for all new digital public services developed across Whitehall.
In a section titled “When to use open source”, the manual says: “Use open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.”
Government IT reformers in the Cabinet Office have worked to introduce a level playing field for open source against proprietary software products, which was embodied in the open standards principles published in November last year.
But this is the first time that government IT policy has gone as far as expressing a formal preference to use open source.
The design manual says that proprietary products must only be used in “rare” circumstances.
...Then you win
For Mark Taylor and all the others who have lobbied endlessly for this outcome, I sincerely hope this policy delivers real change within Whitehall, not only “as a taxpayer” but also because those of us working with clients using OSS we see day in, day out, the phenomenal innovations that can be achieved with the open source model and community engagement.
A huge debt of gratitude must also go to those early adopters and innovators with local and central government (including London Borough of Islington and London Borough of Camden), who have patiently fought the battle for OSS internally, often against stiff opposition, and proved its value for the organisation and citizens that they represent.
I’m looking forward to hearing more from OSS users (Met Office, Department of Health and London Borough of Camden), OSS suppliers and HM Government at the Open Source, Open Standards event, in April, on how this policy may facilitate change.
UK Government CTO Liam Maxwell is definitely on board, as he told Computer Weekly:
As the guy from Brazil said: “Why wouldn’t you...?”