Open Standards Open Opportunities

Flexibility and efficiency are perhaps not two words that have been traditionally associated with the public sector in general, and certainly not with government IT. This might change though, and you can help nudge it in the right direction. Last week, just before the budget was announced in front of a packed house of commons there was this little exchange:

John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what recent assessment he has made of Government policy on open source software and open standards; and if he will make a statement.

Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office; Horsham, Conservative)

We have always made clear that, where appropriate, Government will procure open source solutions.

Open source products are used in the delivery, of huge database programmes—such as the Indian Identity card scheme—at a greater scale and for much less cost than we have experienced in the past., the new platform for publishing in UK Government employs the same open source technologies.

It’s being delivered for a fraction of the cost of previous Government web schemes.

So not a big long speech, but there it is, said in the house and recorded for posterity with the transcript of the oral answers in Hansard and,

The government is moving on Free Software, there is a very high level understanding of the need to avoid lock in, promote re-use and to remove the barriers to adoption for Open Source software. They have been taken for a ride by a bunch of proprietary suppliers who have sold them the same old stuff over and over again, with contracts that tie the government down and keep the gravy train rolling. There is no massive appetite for the government to contribute directly to free software projects, but they are very willing to have more open software from their existing and new suppliers, and to have those suppliers be good citizens in the open source community.

There appears to be a general alignment (and indeed confusion between) open source and open standards. What the government really appears to want is open standards, with open source software as a means to get to an environment where open standards are prevalent. This will give them the re-use and interoperability that they really want.

To this end the cabinet office is running a public consultation at the moment, asking you to comment on their thinking in the area of open standards. Don’t be misled though, this is all about open source really, and they really really want a bunch more responses to their consultation. You can view the consultation website here:

It is a bit of an epic read, there is a 31 page pdf describing the consultation then you can go on to provide your responses on the website where your answers will be published along with those of everyone else. I don’t think I have ever filled in a form where my answers were broken down into chapters before, but there is a first time for everything. Chapter 1 is all about how they should define what an open standard actually is, kind of like art, you know it when you see it. Chapter 2 discusses whether open standards should be mandatory (expect some detailed answers from proprietary suppliers in this section explaining why the world would end if openness was not optional). Chapter 3 is all about international alignment and would be a great place for comments from people who are not UK based but for whatever reason think we should be more interoperable at a government level.

Please do have a read of it and browse the questions and answer any you feel like giving your opinion on. Don’t feel you have to answer them all, or give long answers. I am assured that this consultation will make a difference.

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