Open Source, UK Gov. & Institutional Profligacy

I got a tad annoyed after reading this article by an old journalist friend and colleague Maxwell Cooter. In the story the new CIO of HMRC is reported as saying that there is basically institutional profligacy within the Cabinet Office:

Phil Pavitt, recently-appointed CIO for HM Revenue and Customs, has revealed that attempts to cut government budget is positively discouraged. In a telling anecdote, he says “In my first few weeks of the job I was visited by leading members of the Cabinet Office. In that conversation with me they mentioned I am in the top purchasing club… That means you have tremendous influence on buying power, buying ideas and management and so on.”I said ‘If I reduce costs by 50 per cent what happens?’, ‘Well, you leave the club,’ I was told.”

As you will probably know, I have a vested interest in seeing the Cabinet Office’s Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use Action Plan[pdf] implemented in full and as quickly as possible. The comment above however, coming from deep within the halls of power, is a clear indication that there seems to be little appetite to drive this Action Plan into, ahem, action. I used the excellent Write to Them service to write to my MP Jeremy Hunt

Dear Jeremy Hunt,

I run an independent consulting company specialising in an area of software technology called Open Source.

We help organisations of all sizes get best-value by using technologies that are developed for the benefit of the user rather than of the producer.

We have been following the Cabinet Office’s recent Action Plan called “Open Source, Open Standards Re-Use” with some interest and have commented positively on the quality of the document but found there to be little in the way of energy to implement or monitor it’s adoption.

Today, I read an article by a journalist whom I have known for many years which seems to corroborate our opinion that there is little motivation for the status quo to change.

The link to the article is here:

“Phil Pavitt, recently-appointed CIO for HM Revenue and Customs, has revealed that attempts to cut government budget is positively discouraged. In a telling anecdote, he says “In my first few weeks ofthe job I was visited by leading members of the Cabinet Office. In that conversation with me they mentioned I am in the top purchasing club… That means you have tremendous influence on buying power, buying ideas and management and so on.”I said ‘If I reduce costs by 50 per cent what happens?’, ‘Well, you leave the club,’ I was told.”

As I understand it, these are civil servants and as such are non-political.

Could you please comment on how a Conservative Government would try to change this apparently appalling attitude towards public expenditure.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Lord

The Open Learning Centre

A couple of days ago I got an initial reply and, although the response itself isn’t exactly exuberant, Jeremy does indicate one thing I have heard something about before; the Tories policy of splitting massive IT projects into much smaller component parts by using Open Standards. This shows to me they have a decent understanding of the power of Open Standards to break the stranglehold a few monopolies currently have, although of course the proof will be in the delivery… He has also written to the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office to get the Government’s response to my enquiry too.

Here’s his reply in full.

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your email in which you kindly included your own experiences of the Cabinet Offices Action Plan called “Open Source, Open Standards Re-Use”.

Whilst I was pleased to hear you are complimentary about the quality of the document, I was sorry to learn that there seems little in the way of follow-up.

I was also most concerned to read the contents of the article by Maxwell Cooter.

Having spoken to the appropriate Shadow Cabinet Member as you requested, they have assured me that the Conservatives will create a level playing field for open source software by introducing open standards across government that enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller modular components. This will cut licensing costs, reduce risk and enable more small companies to bid for government ICT contracts.

I hope this is helpful and in order to get the Government’s response to the issues you have raised, I have also written to the Rt Hon Angela Smith MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office seeking her comments.

As soon as I have received the Minister’s reply, I will of course let you know straight away.

Thank you once again for bringing this important matter to my attention and if I can be of any further assistance in the meantime, please do let me know.

Best wishes


Jeremy Hunt
Member of Parliament
South West Surrey

If you want your MP (or future MP), whatever party they represent, to at least be aware of issues that concern you, please write to them. It is an easy way to voice your opinion. I have found MPs and MEPs to be generally quick to reply, to have understood the points I made and to follow up on issues when they said they would.

PS: Once I have the Minister’s reply I will of course let you know straight away too.
PPS: Can I please be recorded as the first to come up with the phrase “Institutional Profligacy” 🙂

Idiot goes Open Source

It seems that even the cat is using Ubuntu… the kids have seemingly seamlessly adapted to Open Source Software. My computer has also taken sides and is so slow it’s definitely trying to tell me something. Finally I’ve admitted defeat and have had to ask Al to make the change, with one caveat – that I can still use iTunes. A robotic sounding “virtual machine” is apparently the answer – it will pretend to run Windows in a little bit of Bill-space and iTunes will be none the wiser that I’ve actually left the Dark Side at last.

I know my new look will take some getting used to and I just have to get familiar but it definitely feels quite different. The icons look more home-made and the whole thing seems less slick. I keep repeating “Kill Bill” and “It’s Free”. I know I will get used to it but at the mo I could almost say I felt sad although probably remembering the “helpful” paperclip will remedy that – Yes, that’s done it – I will give it a chance.


This is an excerpt from my ramblings on going over to Open Source Software. My husband (The Open Sourcerer) has persuaded me to put it on here but I’ve really no idea why. He said “people will be interested, you’ll be surprised.”

….surely they have better things to do??? I’d be interested in the work/chore that is so bad you’d rather read this than do it.

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 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.

BETT 2010 Review

It’s that time of year when around 30,000 educationalists from all over the world descend on Olympia in London for the annual edu-geek-out that is BETT.

I’ve been going to BETT now for 3 or 4 years as an exhibitor or just helping to promote Open Source and Free Software with other like minded members of our amazing community.

This year we helped our friends and colleagues at Open Source Schools and Open Forum Europe on the Open Source Café. The simple objective of the show was to inform the education sector about Open Source and where to find help, advice and common ground with peers who’ve “been there” and “done that” already.

This year was, frankly, quite exceptional.

The stand received financial sponsorship from Red Hat, Linux IT, University of London Computing Centre and The Learning
Machine (Ingots)
for which everyone is very grateful. Canonical, the commercial entity behind Ubuntu very kindly provided us with 600 Ubuntu 9.10 CDs (500 Desktop and 100 Server) to give away (thanks Larry) and there were a similar number of CDs containing a great collection of Education-centric Open Source desktop applications for Windows from Free Software for Students that was compiled and produced by Peter Kemp and David Wilmut. That’s around 1200 CDs in total full of completely Free goodness and fun. We encouraged all the recipients to copy, share and pass them on too! At the end of the show we had only a few (quite literally) of each remaining.

An interesting sum was carried out: The value of equivalent proprietary software was estimated to be over £4000 for the pair of CDs – I actually think that is rather low considering the volume of stuff in the Ubuntu repos including several real Enterprise grade applications such as OpenERP and Alfrescoso we have potentially delivered a net saving to the education sector of at least £2.5m. And of course this does not include all the free copies that will be made and passed around!

The Open Source Cafe at BETT2010

The Open Source Cafe at BETT2010

I noticed a real sea-change between this show and last year’s. I don’t actually recall speaking to one school or Local Authority this show that had no-idea of, or that wasn’t aware that they were using, Open Source Software. Most were really proud of their achievements, many were rolling out or had completed roll outs of rather than waste many thousands of pounds on unnecessary & proprietary Office Application Suite Licenses. Many more used and raved about Audacity – the ubiquitous audio capture and editing tool. No one I spoke with was reticent toward Open Source and many were keen to talk and share their experiences. This is what the Open Source Schools project is all about: using the principles of FOSS; of community, collaboration and sharing, and providing a location for this to happen. If you are involved in education and have any interest in Open Source, or even better are an expert, get involved and share your experience and knowledge gained.

We also found time to meet up with friends and colleagues from Sirius, Mark Taylor and John Spencer. Sirius has been very successful in the education sector, they are the only Open Source vendor to be on Becta’s “approved supplier list”, and were nominated for an award this year for the work they and North West Learning Grid put in to the National Digital Resource Bank.

The national digital resource bank will deliver a vast range of publicly funded resources under a creative commons licence and populate your learning platforms, preparing them for effective use.

It will also create a sharing community of educators who will identify, review and improve a common set of national digital assets.

The world is really changing very fast. I go to parties and find people in all walks of life (i.e. not IT professionals) who are aware of Open Source, Governments are (some faster than others admittedly) waking up to the reality that FOSS provides significant benefits over proprietary software in many ways more than just money, and Enterprises are adopting not just Open Source Software but the principles behind it too to make their own businesses better.

BETT 2010 confirmed this trend in spades. Roll on BETT 2011.

Miles from Open Source Schools and one of the organisers of the event has also posted a review of the show that you can read here.

It’s definitely working…

My eldest son James, who’s 9, suggested something to me on Saturday morning over breakfast that made me quite proud and very chuffed.

The conversation went something like this:

“Dad, I think you should come to our school and talk to us about what you do. You know, Ubuntu and Open Source and all that.”

“Really James? Do you think so?”

“Yes, you’d have to be CRB checked [sic], but you could come and explain about Ubuntu. If Mr. Jeffs [The Headmaster] knew about it we’d have more money to spend on useful things for the school.”

“That’s interesting James, what do you mean?”

“Well, Ubuntu is free isn’t it. So we wouldn’t have to buy Microsoft Windows any more. And it is better than Windows isn’t it. And it doesn’t get viruses like Windows either does it Dad. So I’m sure Mr. Jeffs would think that it’s a really good thing…”

UbuntuBoth my kids use Ubuntu at home; they are 5 & 9. They skip easily between Ubuntu & the Windows machines they use at school and with their friends. They also switch without difficulty between applications too. When necessary James does his homework in and takes a USB stick to school with the files saved in a nasty proprietary format.

Seems like I’d better write a nice letter to Mr Jeffs then hadn’t I?

Building an Engaged Community

I am very pleased to report that I have an assignment for OSSWatch, an organisation set up by JISC and attached in a kind of complicated way to the University of Oxford, to report on an upcoming event Building an Engaged Community. I will be covering it in two ways, an article after the event summarising it and also a live stream throughout the day. The live blog will be hosted on which is really well designed for such events. The only issue I had with it was that to be the presenter you have to be on a recent Firefox or Chrome browser (I think Opera and something else may have been in the list too) and I wanted to use it on my OLPC XO laptop that I have running Debian and the Iceweasel browser. Iceweasel is simply Firefox with a different name but the browser detection failed. Luckily the workaround was easy enough, going to about:config you can change the general.useragent.extra.firefox string from Iceweasel to Firefox, leaving the version number alone. With this done Coveritlive seems to work perfectly.

So if you want to follow along on Monday you should be able to watch the stream live in this blog post, if you have comments during the event you can submit them and I will endeavour to ask the speaker your questions. You can also tweet comments with the hashtag #opendev09 (sorry don’t think there is integration but if your feeds your twitter it should all work)

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