New Thoughts on the UK Government Open Source Action Plan

Remember when, back in late February, the Cabinet Office released their “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan”? Myself and many other FOSS commentators were obviously heartily encouraged and have talked about it and examined the policy in some detail.

I was going back over the document recently and something quite important struck me that I had missed completely the first time round; there is a distinct lack of consideration for one particular group of “stakeholders”. A particular group of very important stakeholders that should be one of the key beneficiaries of the whole policy.

Can you guess who I mean yet?

You.

Yes, the tax paying public. The group that actually consumes the services and output of Government. The group that pays the bills. The group that needs and should be guaranteed free and open access to public information; especially now after the recent ‘expenses revelations’.

Yet, reviewing the policy as a whole it seems remarkably introspective. Only examining how FOSS should or could be acquired and used within Government for Government. And it really only discusses the expectations and implications of increased use of FOSS for itself alone. It is as if the Government are acting only for themselves. <sarcasm>Surely not?</sarcasm>.

The key objectives will be 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.

Even the first objective above targets only those consumers that have already adopted FOSS solutions themselves. There is very little (and I’m being generous) mention or apparent consideration of the public citizen and the benefits that adopting Open Standards/Open Source will bring in terms of ability to access information without needing to acquire proprietary software to do so. There should, IMHO, be another “spoke” to the Government’s policy that provides for a basic level of education of these benefits to the public in general and the public sector employee too.

In my company we tend to meet and deal with individuals who are quite well-informed and will have (at least) a basic understanding of FOSS. They have probably heard of OpenOffice.org for example. But if you were to have that kind of conversation outside of the IT sector you will often be met with blank stares or gasps of “But how can it be free?” or “What’s the catch?”. It is these people who need to be contacted and helped so they may make an informed choice about the software they use on their home computers. Today many do not know they even have a choice (try asking you neighbours if they have heard of Ubuntu). It is – the way I see it – the responsibility of our Government to provide some base-level of information; the proprietary software vendors won’t pay to advertise FOSS and, to be totally honest, I don’t really see why they should be forced to in a free market.

You might think to suggest that is up to companies like ours to do this promotion. And we do to the best of our ability and as finances will allow. But, like many others, we are not a large company and do not have hundreds of thousands of pounds or more to spend on that kind of education. In fact, I was contacted last week by someone working “on behalf” of the Cabinet Office and a publication that is destined to go to all Local Government departments around the UK to help spread the word about the new policy and action plan. We were asked initially what we did and then if we would be interested in being included in this government sponsored and distributed “book”. It sounded very interesting. Until that was, they said it was going to cost us £4000 to have our company details in this register for just 6 months!

That hardly sounds like an “inclusive” and helpful exercise does it? Who are they going to get paying that kind of money? Just how much does this “book” actually cost to produce? And how many copies will be printed? And why are they still using books and paper anyway? It’s contents will almost certainly be out-of-date before it even gets distributed. Sheesh.

There is still, clearly, a very long way to go before our Government really starts to “get it”…

If John Suffolk or any other Government (or opposition) policy makers would like to discuss these issues further and hear how we think we could help to get the “message” out in a more inclusive, effective and less expensive way, please get in touch with us via our company web site. I have tagged this article with the requisite #ukgovOSS so I am hopeful that it will be picked up.

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4 Comments

  • Alan Bell says:

    Along the lines of the missing stakeholder I have a few concerns about the end of the foreword to the action plan:

    This open source strategy addresses these key points. It sets out the steps we need to take across Government, and with our IT suppliers, to take advantage of the benefits of open source.”

    I for one don’t particularly want to be taken advantage of. I am not best keen on being leveraged either (a term I have seen somewhere in relation to this but I can’t find right now). This is community developed software. A community that welcomes with open arms the involvement of new participants. You can join or participate in a community, you can support or contribute to a community. If you start out wanting to leverage or take advantage of a community then it might just not work out quite as intended.

  • [...] New Thoughts on the UK Government Open Source Action Plan Remember when, back in late February, the Cabinet Office released their “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan”? Myself and many other FOSS commentators were obviously heartily encouraged and have talked about it and examined the policy in some detail. [...]

  • CatTaylor says:

    I wonder, where this leaves the whole initiative? http://tinyurl.com/kmr8sb

    If this doesn’t just sanction the continuing moronic behaviour, and further embed Microsoft into the Public Sector then I am a Dutchman.

    I would love to see the workings out on it – and you know? 75 million is relatively small beer. If you look at the total spend over the same period……….if only we knew waht that was now. #ukgovOSS #open source/standards

  • John Suffolk says:

    Thanks for all of the comments, we welcome them. It can be really difficult to get a pitch right in a document. All the policies I have issued we have kept purposefully short – c 9 pages. That way they get read and commented on. However they don’t always hit everyone’s buttons.

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