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.

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