UK Gov Updates Open Source Policy

Remember the Cabinet Office Open Source, Open Standards Re-Use: Action Plan that came out last February?

Well, they’ve updated it. And the bits that they have changed are most welcome:

4. This Strategy does not represent a wholesale change to the Open Source Open Standards Reuse Strategy published in February 2009. It has been updated to take account of comments posted on www.writetoreply.org. The key changes to policy are:

  • We will require our suppliers to provide evidence of consideration of open source solutions during procurement exercises – if this evidence is not provided, bidders are likely to be disqualified from the procurement.
  • Where a ‘perpetual licence’ has been purchased from a proprietary supplier (which gives the appearance of zero cost to that project), we will require procurement teams to apply a ‘shadow’ licence price to ensure a fair price
    comparison of total cost of ownership. We have also defined the shadow licence cost as either:

      1. the list price of that licence from the supplier with no discounts applied, or
      2. the public sector price that has been agreed through a ‘Crown’ agreement.
  • We have clarified that we expect all software licences to be purchased on the basis of reuse across the public sector, regardless of the service environment it is operating within. This means that when we launch the Government Cloud, there will be no additional cost to the public sector of transferring licences into the Cloud.

Which is nice :-)

But unfortunately, as has been said widely before and again with this update, this is an action plan without any teeth. There is no enforcement, there is no monitoring and there are no penalties for not implementing the plan.

It’s all been said already so this is a short post. Until the Cabinet Office can get this implemented at a departmental level across the government and enforced, it remains essentially a "nice-to-have" objective but not much more.

The Cabinet Office have an Open Source aggregation service that collects various commentary from around the world based on various tags. This one needs the #ukgovOSS tag if you want to write your own piece or even tweet/dent about it.

PS: We have also made a remark or two about this update on our recently started (admittedly rather quietly) and more business-centric Open Source blog that’s on our main web site. We’ve called the blog The Way Out. Please feel free to drop by or add to your feed readers.

A response from my MEP about EIF2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the following to my MEPs using the excellent www.writetothem.com

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Dear Marta Andreasen, Nigel Farage, Catherine Bearder, Sharon Bowles, Peter Skinner, Caroline Lucas and Nirj Deva,

I am very concerned about the progress of the European Interoperability Framework version 2. This document seeks to encourage openness and interoperability between IT systems of member bodies and the legal and policy frameworks above.

A first draft was published http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/7728 and comments were solicited http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/7732.

Having read the first draft and the comments I am at a loss as to how the leaked second draft http://www.bigwobber.nl/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/European-Interoperability-Framework-for-European-Public-Services-draft.pdf came about. Most of the document has been ripped out and that which remains has been watered down to the point of being meaningless. I have some specific examples I would like to share with you:

1) The last paragraph on page 23

“Therefore, technical interoperability should be ensured, whenever possible, via the use of either standards endorsed by recognised standardisation organisations or technical specifications made available by industry consortia or other
standardisation fora.”

This should have the words “whenever possible” struck out. I can think of no situation where it would not be possible to publish a technical specification, although it might be possible to relax the definition of “industry consortia or other standardisation fora” – as long as the specification is published and freely implementable (and is accurate) then I don’t think it is essential to be published by a consortia.

2) The paragraph on page 25 at the end of 5.2.1

“However, public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, especially in cases where open specifications do not meet the functional interoperability needs or the ones available are not mature and/or sufficiently supported by the market, or where all cooperating organisations already use or agree to use the same technologies.”

This is a recipe for lock-in and the exact situation the EIF is supposed to counter. If there is a single vendor providing the technology then the specification needs to be *more* open not less open. This means if a vendor has a monopoly position, they are allowed to defend this monopoly by having a less open specification so that other products find it harder to interoperate. If all cooperating organisation already use or agree to use the same technologies *now* they should be specifying open standards for interoperability such that in the future if one or more cooperating organisation decides to change their technology they are free to do so.

I would really like to know which public comment or behind the scenes lobbying motivated the insertion of this paragraph.

It might be possible to split this into two paragraphs, one permitting “less open specifications” where there is evidence that a wide range of implementations exist including open source implementations, and one permitting all cooperating organisations to use the same technologies where there is a “more open specification” that is freely implementable.

3) the last paragraph of 2.10 on page 11 is also a concern, pretty much the same as the one in 5.2.1

European public administrations need to decide where they wish to position themselves on this continuum with respect to the issues discussed in the EIF. The exact position may vary, on a case-by-case basis, depending on their needs, priorities, legacy, budget, market situation and a number of other factors. While there is a correlation between openness and interoperability, it is also true that interoperability can be obtained without openness, for example via homogeneity of the ICT systems, which implies that all partners use, or agree to use, the same solution to implement a European Public Service.

This could be fixed by adding a sentence warning of the danger that a homogeneous ICT environment coupled with a lack of open standards for interoperability leads to partners being locked in to that environment – which is what EIF seeks to prevent.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Bell

and yesterday I got the following reply from the office of Caroline Lucas

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your recent email, which Caroline has asked me to respond to on her behalf.

Greens have long campaigned to protect free and open source software, including heading off proposed legislation to introduce software patents. We are opposed to patenting on a number of grounds including:

· the threat to small business and the open source community
· that innovation will be stifled
· unnatural corporate influence

The impact on consumers is also important to Caroline and the Greens and we argue that patents help lock in technology, in the way you describe, thereby encouraging monopolies and discouraging interoperability. So, we want to guarantee that any EU legislation on interoperability genuinely does open up IT, rather than close it down and concentrate control in the hands of a few corporations.

The European Interoperability Framework version 2 is designed to help overcome interoperability problems and in principle is something that Green MEPs would support. However, Caroline takes your point that the wording of the leaked draft is certainly not as strong as it might be. Please be assured that when the proposed framework comes before MEPs, she and her Green colleagues in the Parliament will be working hard to press for legislation that delivers full interoperability and to oppose the standards being watered down by powerful players in the IT industry. The European Commission does have a track record of standing up to companies like Microsoft, so Caroline is hopeful that on this issue its final proposals will be strong.

Thank you for getting in touch and for alerting Caroline to your concerns. If you need any further information please do let me know. You might also be interested in reading about Caroline’s work on a range of issues at www.carolinelucasmep.org.uk

Kind regards,

Cath.

Cath Miller
Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
Green Party MEP for SE England

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.

On the ‘Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: UK Government Action Plan’

As anyone interested in the politics and wider adoption of FOSS will know by now, the UK Government recently released an updated policy statement regarding “Open Source and Open Standards”. I made a brief comment on it when the news broke, but have now had more time to consider the document in more depth.

Firstly, It’s quite minor but nevertheless a shame that the pdf document was issued using Arial and Times New Roman embedded fonts that are not available on a free license. This leads me nicely to my second general point.

Why is there no mention of “Free Software“? There is a distinction between Open Source and Free software that, for some at least, is extremely important.

Anyway, having now read the pdf policy document in full, I want to air my thoughts on it.

After the preamble and introduction, in ‘The Way Forward’ we read this:

The Government considers that in order to deliver its key objectives a programme of positive action is now needed to ensure that there is an effective „level playing field‟ between open source and proprietary software and to realise the potential contribution open source software can make to wider aims of re-use and open standards. This programme needs to consist both of a more detailed statement of policies and of practical actions by government and its suppliers.

Notice how this is discussing a programme to generate policy statements and actions. I actually reckon this is really good stuff but am a little concerned about the fact there aren’t any demonstrable programmes or actions already created. In other words, it looks like we’ll have to wait for the bureaucrats to get their ink flowing before anything “real” happens. There are some actions at the end of the document, and although they are worthy in themselves they are rather broad and easy to spend years developing. Small, precise, tactical actions are what is required IMHO.

The objectives of the “programme” itself are pretty darn good from what I can tell. They read like a manifesto from RMS himself…

1. ensure that the Government adopts open standards and uses these to communicate with the citizens and businesses that have adopted open source solutions.

Nice – can I send documents to my MP or local council in ODF today then? (see toward the end of this piece) I don’t use any proprietary software in my business nor home (apart from my wife’s PC that is shortly to become Free too).

2. 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.

Once you do really take into account “re-use” it gets pretty hard to see how proprietary software represents value for money [“Sure Mr. Brown, just buy one copy of Office 2010 and re-use it across the country!”]. I look forward to seeing some detail here and the procurement guidlines for “properly” considering open source solutions.

5. 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.

Nice. Good objective.

The next section (6) is called “Policy” and stipulates the policy in broad but laudable terms:

(1) The Government will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions,

(2) Procurement decisions will be made on the basis on the best value for money solution to the business requirement, taking account of total lifetime cost of ownership of the solution, including exit and transition costs, after ensuring that solutions fulfil minimum and essential capability, security, scalability, transferability, support and manageability requirements.

(3) The Government will expect those putting forward IT solutions to develop where necessary a suitable mix of open source and proprietary products to ensure that the best possible overall solution can be considered.

(4) Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.

These first policy item is sort of a catch-all but is quite vague and unmeasurable. I really want to see how they intend to implement, monitor and correct the bad procurement decisions.

The second and third points are indeed measurable and quite clear in their demands which is great.

The forth sounds very promising but again I’d want to know the detail; how the overall cost of the procurement can really be measured when you are comparing apples and oranges. This is a very difficult one to get right and the commercial vendors have many years of practice at coming up with exceptionally (ahem) creative pricing.

The Policy then goes onto non-open source software guidance:

Non-Open Source Software

(5) The Government will, wherever possible, avoid becoming locked in to proprietary software. In particular it will take exit, rebid and rebuild costs into account in procurement decisions and will require those proposing proprietary software to specify how exit would be achieved.

(6) Where non open source products need to be purchased, Government will expect licences to be available for all public sector use and for licences already purchased to be transferable within the public sector without further cost or limitation. The Government will where appropriate seek pan-government agreements with software suppliers which ensure that government is treated as a single entity for the purposes of volume discounts and transferability of licences.

Nice: “The Government will, wherever possible, avoid becoming locked in to proprietary software.” A fine objective if ever I read one.

I’m not sure about number 6 though. I guess it depends largely on existing contracts as to the flexibility they have with their current licenses but this must be sending shivers through Redmond right now.

Open Standards didn’t get much coverage. I guess it says what it must but open standards are one of the reasons we have FOSS today. The IETF who gave us amongst others RFC 793 and 791 (without which the Internet wouldn’t exist) and the W3C who protect and publish the open specifications for the world wide web are light-years ahead of the ISO as we have seen recently with the OOXML debacle. At least this part of the policy will be very easy to monitor. Send your Doctor, MP or Councillor an ODF document for example.

For IT and digital standards, the ISO is becoming totally redundant. Thinking back to when I was a lad, we had X.25, X.400, X.500, the ISO 7 layer reference model OSI and a ludicrously complex network management protocol known as CMIP. In their full specifications, these are all virtually obsolete now although some have been used in a cut-down form for modern standards like LDAP for example. But the reality is the ISO/ITU (CCITT) take too long, and try to be too clever. So Mr Brown and Mr. Watson, please do be careful – there are standards, and then there are standards…

The “Re-use” section gets really interesting and shows quite a good understanding of what FOSS is all about. But how on earth do they expect to achieve this

… look to secure full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of commercial off the shelf products it procures, so as to enable straightforward re-use elsewhere in the public sector.

without paying an arm and a leg for it. Can you imagine Larry or Steve agreeing to giving “full rights” (whatever that means) without a blank cheque? I can’t. In the same paragraph the following sentence is a really excellent policy:

Where appropriate, general purpose software developed for government will be released on an open source basis.

In the US public sector they have, for some time I believe, had a policy that basically means stuff created by and on-behalf of the public belongs to the public and is in the public domain. When I read stuff like this from what is the most draconian Government we have had in generations I am somewhat sceptical and really wonder how much actual input Number 10 and the policy makers have had in this document. The state that wants to restrict the citizen’s liberty whilst protecting the state itself so judiciously doesn’t feel like the same state that will write open source software. Time will tell on this one.

In the final section “Action Plan” there are 10 actions presented for the Government. These actions cover producing published guidance on procurement which will include words like:

a standard form of words for Statements of Requirements to state positively that the Government’s policy is to consider open source solutions on their merits according to total lifetime cost of ownership.

and

The CIO Council and the OGC, working with industry and drawing on best practice from other countries, will institute a programme of education and capability-building for the Government IT and Procurement professions on the skills needed to evaluate and make the best use of open source solutions . The aim will be to raise the level of awareness, skills and confidence in the professions in the different licensing, support, commercial and cost models associated with open source solutions.

Which is very interesting to an Open Source Consulting Business like my own ;-)

As is the following which I feel is particularly strongly worded compared with the rest of the document:

Government Departments will challenge their suppliers to demonstrate that they have capability in open source and that open source products have been actively considered in whole or as part of the business solution which they are proposing. Where no overall open source solution is available suppliers will be expected to have considered the use of open source products within the overall solution to optimise the cost of ownership. Particular scrutiny will be directed where mature open source products exist and have already been used elsewhere in government. Suppliers putting forward non-open source products will be asked to provide evidence that they have carefully considered open source alternatives and to explain why they have been rejected.

Well, well, well:

The Government will specify requirements by reference to open standards and require compliance with open standards in solutions where feasible. It will support the use of Open Document Format (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) as well as emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards (eg ISO 19005-1:2005 (“PDF”) and ISO/IEC 29500 (“Office Open XML formats”). It will work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites.

Can I say that again… “The Government will support the use of ODF” and a lovely phrase for OOXML “open versions of previously proprietary standards”. That’s possibly the kindest description of the worst specification ever written. Kudos for the clear mandate for ODF.

The last action is probably the most important of the lot:

Government will communicate this policy and its associated actions widely and will expand it as necessary. It will engage with the Open Source community and actively encourage projects that might, in due course, develop into „Government Class‟ products. It will keep the policy and progress on the actions under review, and report on progress publicly.

Firstly, I want to see how this policy is going to be communicated to the huge oil tanker called the UK Government. Secondly, it is spot on to want to engage with the FOSS Community but they will have to put in place some mechanisms, resources, on-line locations etc. where this engagement can take place. And the Government will have to learn very fast that for FOSS to work, the community has to collaborate in all directions and its members must give as much, if not more, than they take to get real benefit. It’s a bit like love… The more you give, the more you get back.

My biggest concern with this is the executive. Over the last 10 years or so their insistence on draconian lawmaking and interference in our liberty does make me sceptical about the commitment from the top dogs and hence the drive to pull this off. But, I will support this effort in whatever way I can until that scepticism is either proved wrong or right.

To conclude this rather long post then, I think this could be a huge and historical turning point in the health of FOSS here in the UK and I am very excited about the tone and sentiment behind this policy document. The authors (Our Government) have started to roll a very large ball down a very long slope. If the current Government do not take this seriously, or should the administration change and turn away, then the ball will roll out of control. If they do what they say and keep close to the community then I honestly believe there could a very bright future ahead of us.

Information wants to be Free

I was pottering about on the internet today and stumbled across this site about Freedom of Information Act requests. It is a great resource and I found exactly what I was looking for. I also spotted a request that had been made to the Departement of Innovation, Universities and Skills about communication about OOXML. This was only mildly interesting, but it got me thinking. This request would have been better addressed to BSI itself rather than DIUS, but it wasn’t. The reason being that the BSI is not in scope of the Freedom of Information act, our national standards body is not considered a public authority and is not compelled to be open and transparent. This just doesn’t sound right to me, especially when I read the act itself and the schedules of bodies that are in scope. After an exchange of emails with the administrators of whatdotheyknow.com I decided that a question to my MP was in order, so off I went to http://www.writetothem.com and sent off this note.

Friday 23 January 2009

Dear Jeremy Hunt,

The British Standards Institution is a commercial company providing
documentation and professional services around standardisation. It also
acts under a Royal Charter to be the UK national standards body on
behalf of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. It is
my belief that when acting on behalf of the UK as national standards
body it should be considered a public authority under the terms of the
Freedom of Information Act and listed in Schedule 1 Part VI of the act.
This would be similar to the situation of the BBC which is included “in
respect of information held for purposes other than those of
journalism, art or literature”.
Can you let me know if this omission can be corrected as openness and
transparency in the decision making processes of international
standardisation is of great importance to us all.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Bell

Now I await his response.

Australian FOSS Advocates Miss-a-Trick (IMHO)

I found this on my Google News reader this morning.

Australia’s open source community leaders have written an open letter to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard calling for consideration of free and open source software in the implementation of the Digital Education Revolution for the National Secondary School Computer Fund.

The letter, signed by 10 local open source professionals, calls for greater use of free and open source software in schools, particularly with the election promise of $1000 to fund a computer for every secondary student in the country.

You can read the letter in full at the same URL: www.techworld.com.au/article/251554/open_source_community_pushes_canberra_school_computer_fund, bet here’s the key paragraph:

We urge you to consider the cost-saving implications of advocating the use of free and open source software in schools to further the aims of the digital education revolution and maximise the impact of this critical investment in the future.

Although I applaud and condone the sentiment behind the letter, I can’t help but feel that concentrating on one single aspect of FOSS (the cost) was rather missing a trick here. As we approach the BETT show next week and my head is firmly in FOSS-in-Education mode right now I think there are other really great features of FOSS that are in my opinion at least as, if not even more, important than cash:

  • The Freedom to Study the software. As Alan Bell so eloquently put it the other day, this freedom to study should be mandated by all Governments where educational software is concerned. When you attend other types of creative classes (woodworking, car mechanics, chemistry for example) the whole point is to learn how things work and how to use tools to make new stuff. With ICT (as it is called here in the UK) based on proprietary software, you cannot even ask how it works, or how it could be improved. Talk about how to kill curiosity.
  • The second point that greatly concerns me, is that by relying on proprietary software in the publicly funded education sector, when your children come home with digital school work (in proprietary binary formats), the educator is essentially expecting every parent to buy and use the same software as is used in schools. At the very least, schools should be also mandated to use Open Standard Formats for digital documents so that parents are free to choose what software suits them rather than be dictated too.

So, whilst I do wholeheartedly support the goals of the request in the letter to the Australian minister, I really think they have missed an opportunity to highlight other significant benefits of FOSS to the wider community as well as just the teachers.

On a technical level, there are other significant benefits too: Virus and Malware Freedom, increased reliability, extending life of existing hardware, flexibility to change (want to use/test/investigate Suse, Fedora, Ubuntu Server? Simple).

Of course I may be lacking some information as to why the letter is so brief and succinct. Perhaps it is about as long a letter as the minister is capable of reading or something, but I’d love to hear more on this from those in-the-know so to speak.

Whilst I’m thinking about it, perhaps we could all collaborate and come up with a list of compelling and virtually inarguable reasons for why our educators should be using FOSS wherever possible.

Come on then. Give us your best shot!

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