Government open source must have an open standards plan

More pressure mounted on the government to use open source software, with calls from MP Tom Watson and the open source community to increase its presence.

Following a number of freedom of information requests, it was recently revealed that government departments were ignoring open source in the face of proprietary software, despite promises by Cabinet Officer Francis Maude.

Maude had declared there would be a “level playing field” for open source as a way to slash public spending.  Yet it is evident that significant sums are still finding their way into the pockets of big firms.

TechEye contacted Tom Watson who was keen to express his support for open source in government IT, and showing support on a parliamentary level to further its use.  While there is clearly support for open source, why has it been so difficult to actually bring about the necessary changes?

Gerry Gavigan at the Open Source Consortium believes that the government has failed to put guidance in place which would ensure an environment where open source can thrive.

He told TechEye that the problem with open source is from a lack of force from the Cabinet Office in putting open standards and interoperability in place.

 “When you look across government it is hard to see any strategic decisions being made,” he told us.

“The government needs to make an overriding decision on the implementation of open standards before open source software can gain a foothold. Without this using open source software can actually cost more.”

Gavigan mentions examples where open source software has been used but, due to a lack of interoperability, expensive licences are still needed.

“There is often a view to purchase IT with single procurements in mind,” Gavigan says. “But often you can be locked in as each purchase has to stand up on its own.  For example it is more expensive when ActiveX is used in one place and not another.

“The Cabinet Office is supposed to be the strategic arm of government, but it needs an overarching strategy on open standards if open source is to work. If this can be done then the benefits are clear, interoperability will save money over time.  Whatever the cost of training it will be a cheaper option.”

Gavigan says that the government needs to be much clearer in its efforts to create the “level playing field” that Maude has promised but not bothered to deliver.

“The government has produced studies in interoperability, and it is clear that it works throughout the economy in general in helping drive prices down.” He continues: “But it has shyed away from explicitly reffering to the IT sector.

“This has meant that there has been no compulsion for those not already interested in open standards to allow for them.”

Ultimately, Gavigan believes that until the landscape is altered with explicit guidance to ensure interoperability within IT systems, then open source will struggle to offer any cost reduction at all.