March 2011 Archives

Government to end ICT "oligopoly"

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The government has promised to bring down the ICT oligopoly as part of a strategy that may have seismic consequences for the public and private sectors.

The 18 large ICT suppliers that have controlled 80 per cent of Britain's much maligned public sector IT will have the rug pulled from beneath them if the reforms promised in today's Cabinet Office IT Strategy work as envisaged.

Big Ben.pngPolicy makers will be freed from the lead shoes put on them by the lumbering, multi-billion IT contracts that have tied them to the big suppliers and hold political initiative back, the policy claims.  

Open standards will be "imposed" on technology in the public sector, creating a country-wide computing platform that will subvert the misshapen procurement regime by allowing young, innovative firms to merely plug-in to UK.gov.

Such an ecosystem may become a feat of civil engineering to define the early 21st Century: a public work to make monoliths like the National Programme for IT seem like the work of 19th Century engineers.

The reforms will bring far-reaching changes to every corner of the public sector. They will require the civil service to agree common working practices in order for the computer system processes built upon them to be interoperable.

"The government will put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision," declared the strategy.

But government would "move away from large ICT projects that are slow to implement or pose a greater risk of failure" only "where possible". The government is already locked into IT contracts, such as the £8.5bn Aspire deal HMRC has with Capgemini, that preceded the last Parliamentary term and may yet outlive the present government.

The government would nevertheless adopt a "presumption against" IT contracts above £100m, while HMRC got a special mention for a plug and play website into which IT SMEs have been plugging tax data apps.

Open source

The strategy also carried forward a raft of reforms begun under the last government. The coalition would re-use its software systems, instead of buying them anew for different departments.

It would build an "asset register" and a government app store. Senior officials would be made to take more interest in and responsibility for their IT systems so fewer of them turned into hash.

But just as the last government in 2009 promised "a level playing field for open source", and a year later promised the same again. It has now been promised again. Open source would get a level playing field and would be used "where possible".

Both the government may have to step up their campaigning efforts if it wants its next ICT strategy, in 2014, to reflect any serious support it may be have for open source.

The programme of reform would, appropriately enough for one proposing lean and agile development methodologies, only last 24 months.

Any longer would be too long to leave the large ICT suppliers unsupervised.

We gave up, says GovIT SME

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It's so hard dealing with the large suppliers who control UK government IT that its not even worth bothering to knock on their door.

So said a public sector SME that has built bespoke software for the last 20 years. Systems integrators are supposed to manage government's IT supply chain, bringing SMEs into the loop and keeping costs down. But SMEs say they push costs up and pick the best work for themselves.

Steve Elliott - SFW.png
Steve Elliott, director and co-founder of SFW, told Computer Weekly he had given up knocking on the doors of systems integrators because they never answered.

Elliott had approached most of those few SIs that control the majority of public sector IT. The £4.5m company had never found any success with such approaches at all.

"We don't engage much with SIs now. Because we haven't been successful in the past we prefer to continue to engage directly with our clients," said Elliott, whose business gets 80 per cent of its business from the public sector.

SMEs are usually scared of speaking out, for fear of being punished commercially. Elliott insisted he wouldn't name names.

But he claimed to have stories where SIs had closed him out of clients or made money for old rope.

One involved an SI approving the work SFW was doing for a client. It involved developing a browser add-on so the client could display some proprietary file formats online.

Quote my quote

"The SI had to see how much it would cost to evaluate and test it, so it was like a quote for a quote. They wanted to do a feasibility study to see how long the quote would take," said Elliott.

"When you compare it to what we were charging and the time-scales we were charging it was a different order of magnitude really. They were taking weeks to do something that would normally take us a few days.

"The department was frustrated. Its not that they were over-charging. They were charging as per the contract," Elliott said.

Without specific exmples there is no way of verifying Elliott's story. SMEs often make such unfounded reports. All SIs get branded alike. None specifically get the blame.

System error

Nevertheless, SIs blunted the competitive edge of those few SMEs they did employ by lumping a five to 10 per cent fee on top of their costs, said Elliott, whose clients include ACAS, DEFRA, and the Veterinary Laboratory Agency.

SMEs are most resentful of this fee, even though they acknowledge SIs are charging for procurement services rendered and risks shouldered.

Elliott said the trouble for SMEs started around 2005 when the Office of Government Commerce (now part of the Cabinet Office) began aggregating its IT business into such large clumps SMEs were automatically excluded. OGC Buying Solutions simultaneously cut the numbers of suppliers on its Framework Contracts in response to changes in EU procurement law. 

SFW had spent a few years on the S-CAT framework in the days of the e-Government push and had seen growth of 20 per cent a year. It was kicked off in 2005 and for the last 3 years growth has been flat. The market influence looks strong here, but Elliott thinks a "significant" difference is made when SIs control access to clients.

Doom clouds gather over parliamentary IT hearing

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A couple of the great mandarins of government IT got top billing at the Parliamentary inquiry into computing last week. They set a gloomy scene for the government's forthcoming IT strategy, which CW anticipates will be published on Wednesday.

They were upstaged by a bunch of small town IT directors who chirped on about the information policy principles everybody expects to become formal policy, and which they claim to be adopting already: small, agile, open, interoperable, entrepreneurial.

Goverment CIO Holds Court at the PASC - edit - 22 March 2011.pngIt was tempting to think of this as the Old Guard's last gasp. It was a horrible sight.

Joe Harley, government CIO and chief of IT at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Phil Pavitt, CIO at the megalithic HM Revenue and Customs, lumbered on about how well their multi-billion pound contracts were performing, using PR-approved factoids that ticked all the faddish boxes.

They showed just how deep the IT establishment is dug into these most powerful departments of state and propped up the 10-year, multi-billion pound alliances it has with the large IT suppliers. The government might not have machinery big enough to shift them.

It looked awful for government policy, awful for the open source movement that has driven its reforming bent and awful, paradoxically, for the neo-Labour movement these old boys represent: a lose-lose situation the extent of which is hidden by confidentiality clauses from all but a chosen few.

Big Society ITopia

It had all looked bright and breezy as the Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry into government IT set into its third week.

Three local government IT chiefs cheerily extolled the virtues of an IT ecosystem modeled not on power hierarchies but on the networked society.

Socialization - Solidarity - Humanity.pngTheir ideology makes the Big Society sound desirable as well as possible, if only it wasn't also used as an excuse to slash and burn public services.

The idea is that interoperable computer systems and open data will form a "backbone", or "glue", or "WD40" on which it is possible to imagine civic Britain as the primordial soup, humming with evolutionary potential, bustling with community co-operatives and do-gooding corporations.

This take on the Big Society vision has become so irrefutable it even has Marxist academics praising the health-giving properties of free-forming, quasi-capitalist societies.

That's what Professor David Harvey told BBC's Hard Talk when he published a book on the subject last year.

Homogeneity was losing favour with the left as well as the right. Diverse, decentralised, self-deterministic communities had proven their worth, Harvey told the Beeb's Sarah Montague.

"Utopia is about continuous change," he said. "Human beings are astonishingly creative. Capitalism has got to the point where its not using that any more."

What crippling contradiction it can cause, to be so transported when such ideas are presented by executives from Tory councils among those most zealously making the public service cuts being used to force through these reforms.

While we hear persuasive chatter from the likes of Mark Adams-Wright, chief information officer of Suffolk, the "virtual" county council, and David Wilde, the CIO at Westminster City, the Old Guard lets the side down. The IT establishment hasn't got a reason why. It doesn't have an ideology. It doesn't even have a spiel that can justify its ugly great contracts.

Kelvin Hopkins MP.pngIt's left to PASC members like Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North, to meet these upstarts in debate.

Watkins pelted them: outsourced public services in places like Westminster are supposed to be "wonderful", he said. But they're not.

Then IT suppliers bamboozle public bodies and charge them outrageous fees, he said.

And what about private care homes, he said, which are dreadful despite being propped up with public subsidies?

Universal credit

The Big Society ITerati doesn't have answers to questions like this. Neither did Professor Harvey, funnily enough.

The Old Guard at least has big IT contracts, and we haven't seen the last of them, for all the talk we've heard from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Most of Universal Credit, the coalition's first gargantuan IT project, was already being shoed into existing contracts with large suppliers without an open competition, the Old Guard told the Committee.

They didn't say why, or how. But Malcolm Whitehouse, group applications director for the DWP said something about how important it was to keep the same people on because they knew the ropes. African dictators are fond of that excuse.

CIO Harley claimed the government had learned its lesson from past IT failures, before trotting out a list of things he was doing to make his multi-billion pound IT contracts more palatable.

The committee heard earlier how 400 benefits systems in local government were serviced by just two or three suppliers.

Storm Clouds.pngBad omen

Socitm has been warning that the large government departments will block the Big Society reforms.

And so it seems the Cabinet Office IT strategy may be forced into a fudge with the very IT oligarchy it has been chipping at for the last six months.

So Pavitt said HMRC liked this idea that government IT systems might be broken up into smaller, interoperable components.

But he said it would be "foolish" to break up HMRC's existing system. It handled £435bn of tax and transacted with the DWP 3bn times-a-year.

It is also locked into a 13-year, £8.5bn contract with Capgemini.

Pavitt trotted out some tired old marketing slogans to shore this Aspire contract up in front of the Committee. It will have cut £1bn from HRMC's IT costs by the time it terminates in 2017, he said. It has even built an open source website.

No matter that the work was only meant to cost £3bn when it was contracted in 2004. Nor that its three year-extension from 2014 is to cost as much as the contract is supposed to have saved over its life.

Nor that HMRC will likely to have no choice but to grant another five-year trigger-extension in 2017. The deal is so uncompetitive HRMC had to pay Capgemini and others nearly £52m to take it on.

It's so uncompetitive HMRC has to build artificial incentives into the contract, as though it were the Department for Health trying to force an NHS trust to mimic the market.

Capgemini logo.pngHush hush

The lions share of the money goes to Capgemini and its two main subcontractors, Accenture and Fujitsu.

HRMC pays Capgemini over £800m-a-year for everything from application development and data centres, to call centres and maintenance.

Another 238 suppliers get a piece of those billions. One must wonder why there aren't more of them. But we don't get to see the numbers.

Even the Cabinet Office's much trumpeted bulk renegotiation of Capgemini's government business is commercial in confidence. Capgemini's executives and major shareholders will have the details. We shall have to trust them and the Whitehall mandarins to ensure what little competition they have is sporting enough.

Radical plan to cut Local Gov.IT

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The draft local government IT strategy has sketched out the beginning of the end for public sector IT.

It's authors may say it is merely a beginning. But these things are certain: it proposes a programme of radical and disruptive change; it is not going to be easy; and this is a taste of things to come in the long-awaited Cabinet Office ICT strategy.

There will still be IT in the public sector. But much less of it will be public.

Half of all local government IT services will be outsourced by 2015. Councils will employ few if any programmers and engineers. Public sector IT will become commoditised and delivered through the cloud. Local autonomy will largely involve IT managers picking services from a menu.

The government's Big Society reforms will be the cause of all this. Local public services will be at the "eye of the storm", warns Routemap 2015, the draft local IT strategy, which is open for consultation until 4 April. The government's "unprecedented" cuts have created a need for "unprecedented" reform. The changes to council IT will be "radical".

Jos Creese.pngDespite all this, Jos Creese, president of Socitm, chair of the Local CIO Council and the man under whose tutelage these reforms were draughted, says these changes will be locally driven.

The key message for local IT managers, he told Computer Weekly, is "in your own time and in your own way".

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.

Creese and the Society of IT Managers make much of how inappropriate it would be for the government drive all this through as a central IT programme. Creese says the past failure of government IT projects can be attributed to their being "too centrally driven". But Routemap 2015 is a centrally-driven policy that recommends central bodies be established to oversee the centralisation of local IT services.

Centralish

Yes, says Creese from his Hampshire CIO office during a rare slot between meetings, its not like any sort of centralisation we've had before.

"If we get this right," he says, "you will end up with the PSN being a national network of networks. You will get a whole range of private clouds that begin to link together. If appropriate, they will join bigger and more centralised entities.

"But you will get there on a more organic and therefore more enduring basis than simply trying to drive it all on a theoretic basis from the centre," he says.

Bottom up centralisation, you might say. One that will involve dismantling much of the public sector, which is what Routemap 2015 proposes for local IT departments. This is not necessarily a condition of a networked society in which public and private entities operate in closer union, glued together by open data and an assumed civic spirit.

Creese says, therefore, local IT departments might need an incentive to get with the programme. Cuts in central government funding are the primary incentive. They're centrally driven. And dreadfully untheoretical.

Fairish

Then there are the "outcomes", or targets, of this reform programme. They set Routemap 2015's idealistic incentive: "Efficiency and fairness".

Whatever happened to equality? This principle must be more important than ever now huge chunks of local government are being privatized. What will preserve the balance between public service and private profit?

This isn't about "grand plans to make a world a better place", says Creese. It's about being practical. It's about using technology to get things done. IT-enabled change. Putting the citizen in control.

"That's what this is about.

"We want to strike a balance between something that is prescriptive and something that is so esoteric it is purely setting a context and not adding anything directly usable to the debate," he says.

No airy-fairy words like equality then. What we have are "efficiency", the local corollary of central cuts, and "fairness", a Conservative election mantra. While the reforms are often given a veneer that makes them seem apolitical they are driven by policy that is as grandly and theoretically Conservative as a country title.

How IT enabled-change can be fair without ensuring equality is not a concern of these reforms. Now IT is not merely the department at the end of the corridor but the enabler of the Big Society, someone may have to pay some thought to the higher ideals.

Why is government IT rubbish?

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Why is the £24bn of UK government computing delivered by just 18 companies rubbish? Mmm. This one may require yet another parliamentary inquiry. Fortunately, we have one. It met yesterday and was quite revealing.

The four witnesses who went before the Public Administration Committee illustrated the problem amply. Half of them were from Intellect, an IT trade body that gives every impression its SME membership is dominated by large suppliers in the way a couple of elephants would outweigh a sack of mice on a set of scales.

The elephant speaks

The Intellect contingent apparently favoured SMEs. Janet Grossman, the chair of Intellect's public sector council, claimed as much. But Grossman is a director of the $17bn systems integrator CSC in her day job.

Take open source software, which systems integrators are said to have ignored despite it being a preference of government policy for two years.

Grossman claimed integrators were doing more open source than people thought. There was lots of open source in government already, she said, and systems integrators would be doing even more of it in the future. Gerry Gavigan, head of the Open Source Consortium, spluttered from the public bench at this.

The Blind Men and the Elephant.pngThe big 18 have it all under control, was her point. Trust us. We'll take care of it.

It was nevertheless time for an apology of sorts. Open source was a "generational thing", said Grossman. The old guard didn't understand open source, was the implication. They also weren't as clued on to agile development methods as perhaps they ought.

It was a most perceptive statement.

The IT industry was built on a conventional corporate model under proprietary software licences and elephantine contracts managed by bureaucrats, accountants, and lawyers who are the legacy of another epoch. Now the techies have bred and are starting to build systems on their own terms, the IT establishment is shaking on its foundations.

So, Committee chair Bernard Jenkin MP posited helpfully, might agile methods lead to the fragmentation of the IT industry?

How indeed could elephantine IT suppliers possibly survive the introduction of collaborative, open development methods in a networked world?

The elephant leaves a FUD

Ah but you should beware of these newfangled ways, say the systems integrators. Trust us.

"The problem with agile is if you are not careful and you are not an informed customer, it can be the never ending change programme," she said. It was classic FUD.

That was the whole purpose of agile, said Martin Rice, managing director of Erudine, who sat at the witness bench with Grossman.

Agile was designed to make change easy, to reduce its cost and remove its contractual burden. It thrives on continual change. Whereas he said, quoting cross bench peer Sir Merlin Sereld Victor Gilbert Hay, the 12th Baronet Moncreiffe and 24th Earl of Erroll: "Its the job of the systems integrator not to solve the problem but to extend the problem."

The difference is illustrated well by the example of Directionlessgov, a website knocked up by a couple of hacktivists in a morning that puts the government's multi-million pound DirectGov web portal to shame.

Facebook was likewise not designed by committee under a hundred-weight of reports and then held in stasis under a 10-year contract in which every blockhead software tweak is charged at a King's ransom. As Rice told the Committee: "Facebook didn't have a document that said,'Lets do Facebook', job done."

And so Intellect might wax wisely about the government IT problem. But it can only see it from the inside. It blames government for not being an intelligent customer, when the problem was government trusting large suppliers to be the intelligent customer on its behalf. It blames bureaucratic procurement rules, when the rules were designed to stop large suppliers getting too big for their boots. It says the government should talk to industry, when it means talk to Intellect members.

They are as convincing as the ministerial platitudes of a teetering Arabian autocracy. Perhaps its time to let the coders get on with it. What might government do to lift their yoke?

SME risks suicide before government IT committee

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Galley slaves working on a UK government IT contract.pngIt would be "suicide" for any SMEs to tell Parliament what was really wrong with public sector IT, Martin Rice, managing director of Erudine, told Computer Weekly in Westminster yesterday.

He had just gone head to head with one of the IT industry's largest systems integrators in a Parliamentary committee meeting.

The fear of commercial suicide may explain why Erudine was the only SME to testify before Parliament's Public Administration Committee. The PASC had promised SMEs. It was the talk of the town. Psst: the PASC is doing SMEs on Tuesday. The other SMEs must have been hiding behind the skirting.

What we actually got was strong representation of the IT oligopoly that has done such an atrocious job supplying 80 per cent of government IT that they have been the cause of many such committee hearings.

Other SMEs tell Computer Weekly they don't want to speak out for fear the SIs will muscle them out of the public sector. This may be one way in which giving large government IT contracts to a handful of suppliers causes the market to stagnate.

The lone SME pressed recklessly on...

Large contracts were "a con", Rice told the committee. They should be broken up.

It appears the government hands over almost all responsibility for its IT in these billion-pound contracts. But since responsibility is so large and the risk so great, the contracts are as tight as a lawyer's underpants. Everything, from paper-clips to computer code is tied down under a tyrannical regimen ruinous to anyone bar those few on top.

That's the picture that is emerging. Then the government asks its 18 systems integrators to subcontract to more SMEs in some feeble hope they might nurture innovation.

At the committee meeting yesterday, Rice said the SIs just use SMEs as window displays, to give government buyers a fool's eyeful.

"You will be engineered into a procurement to win the bid," he said. You will then almost guarantee to be engineered out once the system integrator's won it."

What he proposed instead was breaking the contracts up and using agile and open source development methods to create a working environment more conducive to innovation, success and presumably, humanity.

Facebook has become the stock example. It supports 500m users on an open source database behind a web system developed using agile methods, apparently. The approach is demonstrated well in Facebook: The Movie, and by the UK's innovative web start-ups getting in on the open data mash-up.

The committee was asked to consider the alternatives: massive projects in which merely taking part in the procurement can cost a couple of million pounds, under which developers are chained under ball-breaking contracts like galley slaves; or a few tens of thousand pounds thrown developers who code a few kerazy ideas that evolve iteratively in consultation with users.

Agile development and open source software were inseparable parts of Rice's testimony before the committee. Both were assumed to be inimical to the undesirable regime presided over by the big SIs.

"The lack of open source is a reflection of protectionism in the industry?" Committee chairman Bernard Jenkin MP prompted.

Since the committee panel was stacked with witnesses who represent large IT suppliers, it was fortunately able to get their right of reply in very quickly.

MOD test flies Universal Credit elastoplast

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Systems analyst letches over old Univac computer operator.pngThe Ministry of Defence has been struggling to patch together a vast estate of creaky old computer systems to make them fit for interconnection in the 21st century.

It's travails may provide insight into the challenges being faced at the Department for Work and Pensions, which aims to build its ambitious Universal Credit system on a veritable shanty town of legacy systems.

Kevin Wallis, lead applications architect at the MOD, heckled open standards purists with the legacy problem at a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group last week.

This chatter about open standards and interoperability was all very well, but legacy systems simply did not conform to new world thinking.

You can glue disparate systems together, he said, "provided the whole of the architecture has been designed around open standards.

"We are working in a brownfield site where we do not have that bit. That is the problem I face architecting the Ministry of Defence application suite. We don't have open standards that we can plug and play. That's the problem."

Having lobbed the inconvenient truth into the open source meeting, Wallis was forced to admit that the MOD IT section had earned itself the nickname "the Microsoft/Oracle department". But, he said, 70 per cent of MOD IT projects used some element of open source software.

The MOD headache will become familiar to departments across government as the Cabinet Office presses ahead with plans to make its systems interoperable through the use of open standards.

Open standards didn't exist 30 years ago

Very old codger with very old computer possibly from DWP but origin uncertain.pngAfter the meeting, Wallis told Computer Weekly: "The MOD has systems that are 30 years old. They are mission critical. How can we work round them to go to an open standards architecture? Mostly open standards didn't exist then."

The MOD was solving the problem on "a case-by-case basis" using a variety of approaches.

"One of the options is, can we wrap it into a web services wrapper so we can pull that existing system as a web service," said Wallis.

"It can work. The huge advantage is that we don't have to redevelop the application," he said.

Another advantage was business continuity, said Wallis. It could plonk a new IT system on top of the old one, getting some of the advantages of modern computing without the usual delay. That would win the department breathing space where it might consider a long-term strategy for upgrading its decrepit systems.

The department's long-term plan was to do this with all its old systems. But it had a finite budget. And the government was considering whether the MOD was a special case whose systems deserved special attention.

The MOD was had been reviewing all its software applications and asking: "Can we eliminate, can we migrate, do we have to tolerate or do we invest," said Wallis. One MOD programme alone was seeking to "rationalise" 600 applications. The Defence Information Infrastructure had rationalised about 2,000 applications to just 500.

Universal credit

The MOD approach may win the backing of duffers at the Institute for Government, whose report into government IT last week itself won the backing of Ian Watmore, head of the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group.

The report said the DWP's proposed £2bn Universal Credit system would be built using agile development methods, which effectively means it would be developed piecemeal, with a high degree of autonomy given to software development teams and outputs being produced iteratively as they were in the commercial software world.

The Universal Credit system proposes to integrate 51 separate state benefits into a single credit in just three years. DWP disperses £90bn-a-year through the present system, which is said to rely on 51 separate computer systems, some of which are 30 years old.

Watmore reportedly said at the launch of the Institute's report that Universal Credit would be built on top of the DWP's legacy systems.

Parliament illustrates gov.IT malfunction by example

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Empty Parliamentary Committee Room.pngAs MPs on the Public Administration Committee opened their inquiry into government IT today, they exemplified the problem they are seeking to solve: why is government IT often such a hash?

Their attempt to expose the problem to democratic scrutiny was hobbled by their dependence on the same proprietary computer systems that made such a hash government IT in the first place.

If you tuned in to Parliament TV this morning you may have seen some of the UK's leading academics of computing shine a light on the problem. Then you may have not. Parliamentary internet broadcasts are optimised for people using Microsoft software.

This is the very sort of bind the government is trying to escape with its G-Cloud and open source strategies. Proprietary software vendors and systems integrators have been free to mop up behind the scenes of the public sector for years because they supply IT systems over which they control the rights and can therefore charge monopoly rents.

Their position looks untenable now government is relying on their software to support democratic processes.

Blue screen

So Microsoft may have been chuffed when Parliament chose its lackluster Silverlight multimedia technology to deliver live video streams of British democracy in action. It now looks like the most striking illustration of the blight such proprietary software is on society and democracy.

How can a democracy address the systematic problem of proprietary software when the only people who can hear the debate are those users and compadres of proprietary software vendors?

This became a pertinent matter for your humble correspondent this morning. He was unable report on the PASC enquiry because he wasn't using a Microsoft system. Parliament's website said it was unable to deliver its video to anyone who wasn't using Microsoft Silverlight. It asked users of competing systems to install alternative software. Only the alternative software doesn't work, at least not without maintenance beyond the means of all citizens but the ITerati.

Interoperability is a problem for web video, colonized as it is by proprietary software interests. It has not proved beyond the wit of the BBC, whose own Democracy Live website relies on the imperfect but universal, proprietary Flash technology. But the Beeb doesn't bother transmitting committee proceedings. The broadcast rights holder (of which it is a shareholder) probably asks for too much money.

Sir Tim Berners Lee.pngAt least when Parliament publishes the written transcript of the PASC inquiry tomorrow it will be available to everyone. The textual components of Parliament web site are delivered using standards defined by the World Wide World Web Consortium, an independent body which (unlike Parliament) is answerable not to self-serving software corporations, but to Britain's beloved internet champion, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Perhaps Sir Tim will make a contribution to enquiry. Will anyone outside of Westminster's proprietary software circle get to hear about it if he does?

Give Linux security clearance, US told UK

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The British intelligence services pushed the open source Linux operating system through security clearance in order to meet a US request for operational interoperability of computer systems.

GCHQ, the signals intelligence arm of the Ministry of Defence, fast-tracked a version of Linux through computer security checks that must be passed by any software to be used in government communications. The procedure is usually off-limits for open source software because there aren't single large corporate backers prepared to sponsor it.

Kevin Wallis, lead architect at the Ministry of Defence, told an open meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group last week that it was the only instance he knew where CESG, the information assurance arm of GCHQ, had vetted and approved genuine open source software.

"This one came about because it was an interoperability issue with a partner nation," Wallis told the meeting. "This was an operating system," he said.

"A Linux variant," he told Computer Weekly after the meeting.

"It was certified by NSA (the signals intelligence arm of the US Department of Defence) in the US.

"And then CESG, because there was a government use for it, were prepared to put it through the accreditation and accept it accordingly.

"We needed it. It got through. Its now in the catalogue. It may now be built upon," said Wallis.

Wallis joined a chorus of leading public sector figures who said at the meeting government departments should sponsor open source software through the CESG approval process. If they didn't do it, no-one else would and government open source policy would fall at the first hurdle.

Wallis said it was a "vicious circle".

The fact that open source software didn't get sponsored for CESG approval had impeded government policy to increase the public sector's use of open source software.

Ravi Vitankar, chief technology officer in Fujitsu Services Government Division, told the same meeting that open source software "needs sponsorship from a government department". CESG could not be expected get open source through security clearance without help.

"It can be done but it still needs the sponsorship from the government department. Otherwise, CESG is so over-stretched that you put it there and it will probably sit there for a couple of years because they won't get around to touching it," he said.

Tariq Rashid, Home Office lead architect, called the meeting to ask why open source software was not being used in government despite a two-year old policy that said it would.

There are a number of Linux variants on CESG's list of security assured products. It does not specify which are proprietary and which are open source versions. Linux variants on the CESG list of approved products include those carried by Red Hat, Oracle, MIRACLE LINUX, and SUSE.

Open standards policy gets thumbs up and let down

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The government's open standards policy is being hailed by free software campaigners as an example to other European countries, but on condition the Cabinet Office can actually implement it - a condition that carries no guarantee.

The Cabinet Office policy might have made the bold, even radical declaration that government ICT must be implemented using open standards at no cost and to the satisfaction of no royalty holder. But it has no teeth.

Its success will depend entirely on the co-operation of procurement officers across the public sector who are accused by techies from as broad a church as the Public and Commercial Services Union and the British Computer Society of making a hash through their ignorance of IT.

The open source and open standards policy had no teeth when the last government launched it two years ago. It had no teeth when relaunched last February. It has no teeth now it has been relaunched again.

Yet it is still being lauded as the gold standard for all other governments to follow. It encapsulates what the open lobby have been demanding for years. And it has fired a broadside into the proprietary software lobby that campaigned so hard in Brussels to temper the European Interoperability Framework (EIF). If the proprietary lobby has been at work in London, it doesn't show. Everything it worked for now looks lost.

Just hear what the free software lobby have to say about the UK policy.

Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, told CW it was "leap ahead for the UK". Britain had always been a laggard. Europe had always led the push for open systems.

"This is one of the stronger policies we've seen from European governments. We'd like to see similarly well-considered steps from more European governments," said Gerloff.

He said it was better than the "fudged compromise" the European Commission made out of the latest version of its EIF, version 2, published in December.

Roaow!...

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, said the Cabinet Office had sensibly used the EC's last open standards policy for its reference and not version 2.

In so doing the UK had set the standard that other countries would indeed follow, said Taylor, whose lobby group has been given the honour of chairing the Cabinet Office's newly formed Open Source Advisory Panel.

Taylor expected other countries to follow the UK with similar policy statements. The EIF was meanwhile not a damp squib. It encapsulated as much compromise as it was possible to achieve between the 27 states of the European Union.

"The EIF is there to encourage pan-European interoperability," he said. "National governments have to come up with their own definitions. The commission has gone as far as it will go."

The UK is the first country to announce an open standards policy since the EIF was published in December. Taylor's advisory group, which has been donated a meeting room and facilities at the Cabinet Office's Whitehall headquarters, has been charged with making it happen. It is meant to be counterweight to the Systems Integrators' Forum, that other body formed the Cabinet Office formed last month with orders not to prevent it happening.

Whether it does actually happen will depend on whether the Cabinet Office and the industry can sustain the movement's momentum.

...Paper tiger!

Gerry Gavigan, chair of the Open Source Consortium, is not convinced the government has done enough to remove the obstacles.

"It all hinges on what you make of 'wherever possible'," said Gavigan in reference to the terms by which the Cabinet Office has declared that open standards should be implemented.

And, he said it hinges on what the government plans to do in those cases where it is possible to implement an open standard but a government body chooses not to.

"What does that recommendation mean in the context of say, DWP?" he said. "If one wants to claim benefits on-line one is told explicitly that the system will only work with MS Windows. What effect does the Cabinet Office recommendation have there?"

A recent meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group considered the reasons why almost all government websites used Microsoft software to the detriment of their interoperability with other systems.

It may ultimately have something to do with what Gerloff calls the "lamentable" standards process which gave us, for example, the Microsoft OOXML "charade". He commended the government for declaring that all standards should be formed by an open process. That may have some repercussions for bodies like the British Standards Institute.

It also trails the outcome of the current review of standards being conducted by the European Commission. EU regulations require standards to be set in reference to EU standards organisations. The UK wants them set on international terms.

Ban the Microsoft "virus", government told

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Microsoft web software is like a computer virus in government computer systems and must be banned, a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group heard last week.

Called by Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid, the meeting formed part of an investigation into why government open source policy has floundered. Rashid got a clutch of executives from the systems integrators who control 80 per cent of the UK's £16-24bn public sector IT industry, sat them before a room full of open source advocates, and asked them to explain why the computer industry had become so stagnant under their watch.

Why for example, asked Rashid, had proprietary Microsoft technologies become entrenched in government systems? The audience seemed more sure of the answer than the panel of executives. The problem was proprietary Microsoft software. Rashid agreed.

Chris Kenyon, vice president of global OEM sales at Linux publisher Canonical, said some technologies had such a malignant effect they should be "banned" from government systems.

"Some software components are so fundamentally viral in the way they get used that the government may want to [reconsider], given that there's convicted monopolist behind a couple of them," said Kenyon.

Rashid had wanted to know why the "vast majority" of government websites were delivered using Microsoft's Internet Information Services Web Server (IIS). Before long the meeting was considering how a phalanx of Microsoft internet technologies, including its Internet Explorer (IE) Browser and ActiveX system for distributing software applications, reinforced one another to the detriment of competing technologies.

Kenyon referred to his sales conversations with the IT chiefs of large organisations: "If they are predominantly on IE, you can guarantee that they have built ActiveX requirements in, and will have used IIS," he said. He went on: "But...IIS encourages the use of ActiveX. You are automatically encouraging people to use IE, automatically locking them into Windows laptops."

Was IIS "too dangerous and viral" to permit at all, he asked. "There are a few key elements of software stacks globally that if you choose proprietary software, you are setting a dreadful precedent," he said.

"Outlook and exchange!", someone shouted from the audience.

Kenyon, said these technologies "may be just so fundamentally viral" that their continued use prevented the government fulfilling its open source policy.

Approached after the meeting, Microsoft refused to comment. The open source community would say Microsoft was a virus, wouldn't it? Kenyon sits on the board of Canonical, Microsoft's arch rival.

But this was not all.

"I have to agree with what you are saying," replied the government lead architect.

"We pay through the nose with when we get stuck with applications that are ActiveX-specific or browser-specific, which then in turn is desktop specific," said Rashid.

It was, he stated, a question of open interoperability standards, or not as the case may be. He derided the use of "secret codes", meaning the proprietary standards by which it was implied Microsoft systems interoperate - to the exclusion of competitors unless those competitors conceded to build their systems on Microsoft's terms.

The meeting proceeded on the assumption that most public sector procurement officers had not even heard of Apache, an open source alternative to IIS, let alone considered that it might be preferable. The procurement system was much to blame. The public sector was awash with Microsoft and Oracle consultants. Procurement officers didn't know anything about technology, they just did what they were told.

The government was doing a host of things to address it. Some might even discourage government procurement officers from installing IIS in a zombie-like fashion. They include ways of promoting open source software. They include a mandate for open standards "where possible". They have not yet extended to hazard warnings for unhealthy proprietary systems, let alone a ban.

Rashid is hosting another meeting of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group this evening.

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