February 2011 Archives

Prime Minister puts weight behind open source software push

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The Prime Minister's office has put its weight behind a drive to make the government's open source policy overcome the obstacles that have seen it flounder for the last two years.

Word of Prime Minister Cameron's intervention came as the Cabinet Office unveiled a raft of measures to designed to fulfil the coalition government's policy commitment to "create a level playing field for open source". The Cabinet Office is working on an open source reference stack, a software assessment model, a CIO training programme and an system to survey open source use in government and finger those departments who don't do enough.

"Number 10 are pushing this," Tariq Rashid, lead architect of the Home Office Technology and Solutions Assurance Team, told Computer Weekly.

Rashid, who was helping the Cabinet Office unearth the reasons why systems integrators have ignored the government's open source policy, said there had been more pressure from Number 10 over open source than there had been from the Cabinet Office, which was responsible for the policy.

open-source-si-forum.pngThe Cabinet Office told systems integrators the Prime Minister was pushing the open source policy when it assembled them for a telling off on Monday, said Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius Corporation, an open source supplier who attended the meeting.

<<< Read the presentation to the Cabinet Office's first Open Source Integrator Forum <<<

The first meeting of the government's Open Source Integrator Forum was a dressing down in which the big 12 systems integrators, who supply 80 per cent of all government IT, were told firmly that they were preventing the government from carrying out its policy and had better change their ways.

Reform

The Cabinet Office this week trailed a series of programmes designed to break the open source deadlock. First among them was a promise to create an open source reference stack: a certified list of software that when put together could create an assuredly functional system.

A meeting of the British Computer Society heard on Tuesday night how the government relied on reference stacks produced by the leading software vendors in preference of their own applications and those produced by their strategic allies. The practice excluded competitors and left procurement professionals across government ignorant of alternatives even when they were better and cheaper.Open_Source_Options_v0.1.png

>>> Read the government's draft list of approved open source software >>>

The Cabinet Office was also working on a draft software assessment model after losing patience with systems integrators whose own assessments typically failed to approve open source alternatives to software produced by the dominant corporations.

Rashid told integrators about the plan on Tuesday: "In my experience, when we've spoken to some of the integrators there's been a reluctance to work with some open source software that this department's wanted to work with. Systems integrators say the software isn't suitable."

"Quite often, the refrain from the integrators is that the software is not appropriate, not mature enough and not suitable based on their internal assessment approach."

Open_Source_for_Govt_Assessment_Model_v0.1.pngOne way we can try and help that is if the Cabinet Office starts producing an assessment model to separate good software from bad software, looking at things like support, how established is it, is there good governance around development, these sorts of things. That would enable customers to say, 'We want to use WordPress and according to this model it's not going to fail'".

<<< Read the government's draft Open Source Assessment model <<<

Rashid said the Cabinet Office was also planning to put departmental IT heads through an education programme after discovering they "aren't as up to scratch in open source technologies". The education programme may extend to those people overseeing procurement reform under the Cabinet Office's IT Strategy review.

"We have people looking at it, but they are not really experienced in setting out procurement paths to open source," said Rashid.

He asked the open source community to contribute to the Cabinet Office's draft policy documents.

Cabinet Office was also formulating a means of checking to see if departments were implementing the open source policy, and giving growing consideration to open source software. This would be something short of an audit, said Rashid, but the Cabinet Office would use it to finger departments that were not stepping up.

Other elements of the initiative include an Open Source Advisory panel, being led by campaign group Open Forum Europe. This is intended to act as a counterweight to the Open Source Integrator Forum, populated by the systems integrators believed to be blocking government policy. A cross-government Open Source Implementation Group will have its first meeting in two weeks.

Computer Weekly understands the open source policy was put on the shelf last year when the Cabinet Office declared its IT contracts moratorium and required every hand to go through proposed procurements with a cost-cutting comb. Qumar Yunus, employed to lead the open source policy, was put straight on the moratorium instead. He came off it only in recent weeks.

A spokesman for Number 10 avoided answering questions about the Prime Minister putting his weight behind the open source policy.

End IT dinosaurs' reign of terror, MPs told

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Public sector IT was depicted as a scene of prehistoric horror in evidence submitted to the Public Administration Select Committee last week.

300-pages of testimony described how a crass procurement regime and stunted technology has created an environment favourable to out-sized IT companies that dominate the rest of the industry. If the evidence before the Committee is anything to go by, everyone's unhappy but the dinosaurs.

As reported by the National Audit Office in another report last week, just 18 IT suppliers command 80 per cent of all government IT contracts. These great, lumbering systems integrators (SIs) may be in for a shock on the scale of a mile-wide meteor. The G-Cloud may pack a wallop. But the government is wavering on its promise to end the £100m+ IT contracts that sustain the IT ecosystem.

Nevertheless, the environment has changed. The PASC evidence comprised a consensus (among all bar the dinosaurs) around the necessity of procurement reform and open standards of interoperability.

These changes promise to nurture the current surge of hi-tech SMEs, just as environmental changes at the end of the Cretaceous period of earth's history led to a proliferation of flowering plants that fed the insects that fed the rise of the mammals.

SMEs may be similarly fluffy, but they have evolved a good set of teeth and will eat your babies if you don't watch them closely.

Cold-blooded

The Cretaceous period is reported in the PASC evidence, and is often said, to have begun in the late 1980s when the last Conservative government (Libdem's absented) started winding down the now beloved Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), the public agency that is said to have kept private IT suppliers in line.

What is universally described now as the government's inability to behave as an "intelligent customer" is said to stem from a trend established then: for government to give contractors the job of telling it what it needs to buy from them.

This led to the situation exemplified by the National Programme for NHS IT and raised repeatedly in the PASC evidence, where the government must therefore also trust what has now become an oligopoly of SIs to sub-contract on its behalf.

They were asked to sub-contract to other tech firms in the public interest, when their first concern was for their own shareholders and executive pensions. This was a product of the naive, New Labour vision of public-private partnership, the precursor to government's Big Society wheeze.

Just about everyone is exasperated with the pattern established under the National Programme for IT, where prime contractors were given the power to hire and fire SMEs vying for government business - or to cut everyone else out and do the work themselves, if they so preferred, which they did.

Ravenous

They call it the bums on seats rule: a large SI will sooner stick another over-paid consultant on the job than let an SME disrupt its business model with some new technology that does away with the need for over-paid consultants.

That's more or less what Malcolm Harbour, chairman of the Conservative Technology Association, told the PASC submission, though he expressed no concern about pay inequality or executive pensions.

Stifled innovation is the terror in this tale: warm-blooded SMEs huddling in caves for shelter, only venturing out to steal eggs and pick insects off dinosaur hides.

David Chassels, CEO of software SME Procession plc, and a former executive with venture fund 3i, relayed for the Committee inquiry a rare public account of how he went cap in hand to Capita for a share of some public business and was thrown out by his ear.

Other SME's will tell you similar stories, but they are scared of naming and shaming in case they get singled out for retribution by the all-powerful SI's.

This unsavoury environment has been sustained by the UK's "gold-plated" interpretation of EU procurement rules said testimony after testimony submitted to the PASC.

The procurement regime is complex and inefficient, they said. It's therefore so expensive that only large firms can afford to take part, and is terrible way of doing anything well but fulfilling obligations set by the procurement rules.

The Office of Government Commerce had made matters worse by relying so heavily on Framework Agreements - backroom deals done to squeeze savings out of large suppliers by consolidating their government contracts.

Thick-skinned

Protecting it all, like the jungle crater round the land that time forgot, are the proprietary software standards that made it difficult for anyone to get in or out of these multi-billion pound IT contracts.

A lot of people are very peeved about this. The dinosaurs, it is said, build systems with which no-one else can interoperate so no-one else can create more innovative ways of doing things.

But the world has moved on, as described clearly in the PASC evidence. Interoperable systems and open standards are the order of the day.

The government hasn't quite moved on, though its been talking the talk for a while. No less than the British Computer Society was reduced to asking in its PASC evidence to be consulted before the government concludes its now concluding policy deliberations on an inclusive IT ecosystem.

Westminster Council said the government's long been better at talking the talk than walking the walk on standards. Similarly, the CCTA was trying to get software metrics established in 1990. That's 20 years for anyone too old not to have noticed.

Metrics have been recommended by many a major report since. But nothing has been done, perhaps because government IT is in hock to a handful of large suppliers who have no interest in having their gluttonous bellies exposed.

The idea wot time forgot

"Software suppliers all measure their own performance and make healthy profits whilst the taxpayer suffers all the cost overruns and delays," said Charles Symons a consultant with Common Software Measurement International Consortium.

"But it is not in the suppliers' interests to educate their customers on how to manage them properly," he said. The Australian State government of Victoria managed it, and apparently did very well.

Other revolutionary remedies were suggestion to the PASC, and none of them were far removed from government policy: prohibit commercial in confidence, make the sub-contracting supply chain totally transparent, publish procurement costs and performance metrics, break up large IT contracts, insist that all government software is open source and replace the common waterfall software development model with iterative, agile development methods.

In short, Alex Stobart of Enterprising Scotland Limited told the committee: less competition, more collaboration.

That won't favour the dinosaurs, who have done well out of procurement laws imposed with strict adherence to the principles of competition. But What will follow, if the evolutionary metaphor stands, will be a period of adaptive radiation, when the innovators flourish.

Parliament wants to dump Microsoft Silverlight

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Saying you can only watch Parliamentary debates on the internet if you have a computer compatible with Microsoft is like saying you can only enter the House of Lords if you shop on Savile Row.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (PICT) has therefore stalled its rollout of Silverlight, Microsoft's latest multimedia technology, while it considers if there is a better way.

PICT's reports on the matter, which we are publishing here today, reveal why PICT is reviewing its relationship with Microsoft. It is seeking to increase public participation in the democratic process, and break the limitations that proprietary software and broadcast licences place on Parliament's use of its own recordings.

Broadcasting Improvements Feasibility Study.pngThe strategy is described in the Feasibility Study for PICT's BroadCast Improvement Plan, published internally last year.

<<< Read the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office's Broadcast Improvement Plan <<<

PICT faces the mother of all standards dilemmas. It's Feasibility Study expresses a preference for digital video standards that don't lock it into a single vendor's technology.

But there may be no viable alternative. The digital video landscape has been perverted by years of domination by proprietary software vendors.

Industry-wide efforts to establish an open standard have increased a pace, but may not be resolved by PICT's self-imposed deadline of summer 2011.

Parliament is a thoroughbred Microsoft House. The Parliamentary Broadcast Unit delivers its recordings in a Microsoft format. PICT delivers them over the internet using Microsoft software. TwoFour Group, which builds PICT's media systems, is a Microsoft House. British voters can best view parliamentary proceedings if they have Microsoft software on their computers.

TwoFour told Parliament to upgrade to Microsoft, says the Feasibility Study. Parliament started preparing to do so. It started working with TwoFour on a pilot Silverlight media player called Karaoke, as described in another report Computer Weekly is publishing today, PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for Broadcast Improvement Plan.PICT BroadCast Improvement Plan - Final Options and recommendations - July 2010.png

>>> Read PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan >>>

But PICT put the Karaoke pilot on hold while it considers its options. The Broadcast Improvement Plan had raised the prospect that being locked into Microsoft might be a disability.

This is a classic example of the way in which proprietary standards lock customers in. Parliament has been using Microsoft Windows Media Software. Microsoft is switching to a new platform called Silverlight. It has to bring all its customers along. Microsoft suppliers like TwoFour chivvy them along. Customers like Parliament decide its not in their interest. But they have little choice.

PICT's Feasibility Study considered that Silverlight fell short as a proprietary standard because its user base was too small. That was on top of the fact that it had the proprietary features inherent Windows Media, its predecessor, that PICT considered a distinct disadvantage. But without a viable alternative, even Parliament may not find reason enough to abandon the costs it has sunk into Microsoft's proprietary technology.

The wild card is the democratic interest. What is lost by building the gateways to Parliament with technologies that place limitations on who can pass?

See also:

Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy


Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube


Hansard's Cloud Plan

G-Cloud: introducing the neo-database state

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Now the Home Office has destroyed its prototype ID database in a publicity stunt, the government is putting the finishing touches to plans that would put the real Identity Scheme databases at the heart of a powerful government data sharing system.

The Government Cloud (G-Cloud), an ambitious Cabinet Office scheme to share IT resources and data across the whole of government, is seeking to remove all technical and organisational barriers to public sector data sharing.

Reports published last week by the Cabinet Office describe how G-Cloud will exhume the data sharing systems that underpinned ID Cards, along with the fatal data security risks that went with them. The principles will be applied to all government data. The plans have been overseen by the same executives who oversaw the ID Scheme's data-sharing system, the ill-fated CISx.

Damian Green Destroying ID scheme Hard Disks - February 2011 - 500 by 415 dpi.jpgThe reports state that the only limits to data sharing between government departments in the G-Cloud would be those imposed by law. It is presumed that whatever sharing is required will be permitted.

The principle was established a year ago in the G-Cloud Vision, which was drafted by Martin Bellamy, the same civil servant who advised ministers to proceed with the CISx as one of two core components of the ID scheme.

Bellamy's Vision cited the CISx as an example of the sort of data sharing that would be possible within the G-Cloud. The CISx plan had involved turning the Department for Work and Pensions Customer Information System database (CIS), which contains personal details of everyone in the country, into a system that could be accessed across the whole government.

"As it develops, the G-Cloud will become the repository of a significant portion of Public Sector data," it said.

Linking data

Bellamy's Vision laid out architectural principles explored in greater detail by G-Cloud working groups under the coalition government last year. The most fundamental was that the government should seek to ensure that data items were harmonized across government so they could be linked.

The G-Cloud seeks to harness the power of the internet to create a network of interchangeable and interoperating systems. It is envisaged that the near entirety of public computer systems would be assimilated by the G-Cloud programme in 10 years.

John Suffolk clarified the vision before he stood down as government's chief information officer last year. The government CTO Council would oversee the development of common data standards G-Cloud required.

"These standards will also ease the process of sharing data between different public sector organisations," he said.

After Joe Harley was appointed CIO in January this year, his division of the Cabinet Office put its stamp on the most up-to-date of the draft G-Cloud plans, the G-Cloud Services Specification.

The specification took the idea of G-Cloud as crucible of government data sharing and rebranded it as system for "Information Access". This involved different public bodies sharing one another's applications in order to access one another's data.

Threads and shreds

It used precisely the same language as the year-ago G-Cloud Vision to describe the framework within which G-Cloud data sharing would operate.
 
"This service will only be permitted where statute allows the data to be shared with the requesting public body," said the reports.

The only other data sharing proviso would be that "information assurance requirements for the data are adequately supported across the G-Cloud," they said.

Shredded ID Database parts - Home Office - February 2011 - 5433789496_eeb5941e9b.jpgThis lesson will be fresh in the minds of those in the Cabinet Office putting the finishing touches to the G-Cloud strategy. Harley was CIO at the DWP when the CISx plan was devised and was still there when it was scrapped last year. Ian Watmore, his boss at the Cabinet Office, spearheaded the Transformational Government strategy by which the Labour government had sought to increase public sector data sharing. The CIS got a special mention in the Transformational Government strategy as well.

The Home Office said last week its minister Damian Green (pictured) had destroyed Labour's ID database. But he only destroyed the temporary system the Home Office erected in a hurry so it could get ID cards on the streets before the 2010 election. It had still not proceeded with integrating the real ID databases because it was still trying to work out how to resolve their excruciating data security problems.

The photographs of Green shredding hard disks on an industrial estate in Essex were a publicity stunt staged to destroy a publicity stunt. It was always said the ID cards were a only a token of the sort of computer systems that have already become well established instruments of government.

The databases still exist. The government still has a plan to integrate them. And the security problems inherent in public sector data sharing have still not been resolved.

DWP spent £5m on ID database it never built

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The Department for Work and Pensions spent over £5m on an Identity Cards database so poorly conceived that it was never built.

The department spent three futile years designing the database after the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) commissioned it 2007. It was to be one of two key ID databases and would form the backbone of a system to share personal data about British citizens across the whole of government. But poor planning, inter-departmental disagreements and data security risks prevented it from being developed.

The DWP refused to reveal how much it had spent designing the aborted ID system, called CISx. The DWP press office said it would only answer questions if forced to do so by a Freedom of Information Request. The answers Computer Weekly obtained under FOI revealed how much money the government wasted on the IPS/DWP plan before it officially pulled the plug last summer.

"The cost of establishing the CISx service and developing the technical changes to CIS to enable data sharing and the storage of additional data items totalled £5,200,000," a DWP spokesman wrote in an FOI report.

The plan involved transforming the DWP's Customer Information System (CIS), which has 90m records of living and dead British citizens, into a biographic reference for government department wanting to check people's credentials and record more of their personal details.

The DWP spokesman said the department could still make use of some of CISx design work in its legacy CIS database, which is still used by more than 200,000 civil servants.

"Standards and policies that were developed have or will be used to support ongoing CIS activities," he said.

Ungovernable

He also gave an insight into the inter-departmental problems that led the ID CISx plan to flounder. The system was so ambitious that numerous government departments where required to govern and fund it, with the work being done by the DWP's Information Systems section. But their inability to co-operate caused the IPS to order the DWP plans be torn up in 2010.

The spokesman said some of those departments appointed as joint owners of the DWP CISx had contributed to its development costs.

"IPS and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) reimbursed DWP the cost of developing the original CISx service assets, apart from the development of a financial management tool for the use of CISx services by OGDs (other government departments), which was paid for by DWP...IPS also paid for the development of technical changes to CIS."

The DWP made no reference to HMRC, one of the other departments that had been appointed joint owners of CISx. Neither did it specify amounts paid by each department.

The DWP had tried to establish an innovative means of governing the development and operation of its cross-government system. Such a system had never been built before. The governance model was untried.

The DWP elected to act as though it were an IT services company. Other government departments in on the CISx plan would become commissioners. The governance model proved unworkable.

"CISx proposed a Commissioner/Provider model and shared governance arrangements, with users of CIS acting as Commissioners and the DWP acting as the Provider," said the DWP spokesman's email.

"The DWP has decided not to adopt this model to avoid overhead costs that would otherwise need to be borne by the Commissioners and because experience led the Department to conclude that the model did not provide significant benefits over existing governance arrangements," he added.

The DWP accepted the IPS' request for the CISx in 2007 after establishing loose agreement over the system of governance with IPS, HMRC and DVLA.

Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube

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Proposed Hansard YouTube System Diagram.png

Techies in the Houses of Parliament are considering plans that would see parliamentary debates posted on YouTube.

The proposal is one of three options being considered by the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (Pict) to distribute video recordings of Parliamentary debates to a wider audience.

The Broadcast Improvement Plan, which is under review until the summer, will seek to widen the audience reach of Parliamentary videos by breaking technical restrictions imposed by the proprietary video software of vendors such as Microsoft, which supplies the software Parliament currently uses to distribute its video on the web.

The plans, obtained by Computer Weekly, describe YouTube as by far the cheapest option, and was modeled on Prime Minister David Cameron's relationship with FaceBook.

"This approach could be seen [as] wise stewardship of financial resources and in line with Number 10's recent partnership with FaceBook," said Pict in its outline of the proposal.

Putting parliamentary debates on YouTube would take 18-22 man days for IT developers. The alternative of pursuing Pict's objectives using its current Microsoft system would take about four times as long, at 81 days. Pict's preferred plan, developing a dedicated application interface and moving to open standards, would take 111 days.

<View Full-size system diagram of the YouTube plan>

DWP ID Plan - read the Restricted report

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Why would the DWP have supported the hair-brained Home Office plan to commandeer its computer assets for the Identity Card Scheme? Vanity, of course.

You can see what the DWP thought of the plan by reading the restricted policy document that comprised its approval, Use of the Customer Information System as a shared, cross-Government asset.

Thumbnail image for DWP CISx Preliminary Feasibility - report cover - Use of the CIS as a shared cross-Government asset.jpgThe DWP fawned over futile ID plan. "Pioneering," they called it. You may remember, the idea was to take Europe's largest public database of personal records, the DWP's Customer Information System (CIS), and bolt it onto the ID system to create a biographic record of everyone who carried an identity card.

It was to be the first project of its kind in the history of government. It would put the DWP at the vanguard of the Labour government's Transformational Government strategy.

"Using CIS as a shared cross-Government asset puts DWP in the lead in the Transformational Government Strategy and cross-Government co-operation. Sharing CIS supports some of the Government's most important strategic goals such as joined-up Government and the re-use of assets. It allows the release of efficiencies across the system and supports delivery that is more focused on customer needs."

Thus enthused Martin Bellamy, the DWP's then Pensions IS director. To be fair on Bellamy, who is now ICT Director for prisons, he did say the obstacles should be cleared before the work went ahead. So why did he and the IPS recommend going ahead without first eliminating those problems that, it would later transpire, were insurmountable?

Bellamy's preliminary feasibility study gave the cross-departmental green light despite the plan's gaping holes.

But the final word came from the Identity and Passport Service, whose official Feasibility Study gave ministers the confidence to approve the flawed plan. We'll come back to that later.

For now, one might say that hindsight is all very well, and feasibility is an art, not a science. Feasibility Studies are technical manifestos: a declaration of intent; a conspectus of what consensus there is to have something done. The art of the feasible is always a gamble.  Done properly, however, it gives the odds; it doesn't attempt to swing them.

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