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UK insists open standards order will apply to COTS

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The UK government has insisted its open standards order will require proprietary commercial software suppliers use open standards in all government systems, despite the edict not actually saying anything about commercial software, and even appearing to exclude it.

If UK open standards policy - introduced Thursday - will indeed do what the government says it will, it will break the primary means commercial software suppliers use to assert monopoly power over their customers.

Such a move would be a landmark in the history of computing. But the government slipped it out out with muted fanfare last week, and then did its best to avoid answering awkward questions about it.

The crucial question is why the policy neglected to address commercial or off-the shelf software (COTS) producers explicitly, when its extent was otherwise stated clearly for every possible eventuality where pressure or convenience might cause government bodies to ignore the open standards order.

COTS companies Microsoft and Oracle, who dominate UK public IT spend, had opposed the open standards policy so fiercely they caused the government to hold it back for two and a half years. The policy was about breaking their hold over public sector IT in the first place. Their opposition had nearly succeeded in burying the policy altogether. Now it had been published it didn't mention them at all. Had they been given a get out?

Other crucial questions included whether the Cabinet Office has any power to impose the policy without enacting legislation, and whether the intransigence of COTS producers will make them automatically eligible for official exemptions built into the scheme.

Say one thing

The Cabinet Office insisted its policy would extend over COTS producers.

"The Open Standards Principles document is clear that for all new government IT expenditure government bodies must specify compulsory open standards, unless an exemption has been agreed," said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman.

"As we consider there is no difference between COTS and bespoke systems in this regard, we have not further specified any difference in the Open Standards Principles," she added.

Computer Weekly has nevertheless learned through unofficial channels that the Cabinet Office is now examining ways to append an official clarification to the policy, to address COTS producers explicitly.

The Cabinet Office might say it applies. But on paper it may not.

The Open Standards Principles decreed 40 "absolute requirements" for open standards in government computer systems. Some of these may have some influence over government purchase of COTS software. But the carefully-worded document did not claim explicit power over COTS. It even appeared to exclude it.

Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Source Consortium, a software trade group, said questions must be asked about why the policy was "silent on COTS".

He said the Cabinet Office might also be unable to enforce the policy unless it enacted it in legislation. It would anyway only apply to central government departments. Most public sector IT spend occurred elsewhere.

"Gruyere has a lower hole density," he said. "But none of this would matter if the intention is there."

Official view

Graham Taylor, chair of Open Forum Europe, an open software trade body backed by Oracle, and who has been industry's main liaison and collaborator with the Cabinet Office policy team, said he believed the open standards policy would apply to COTS.

The policy might not have addressed COTS directly. But a policy background paper had given vague attention to a COTS question that had been asked in the UK's public consultation on open standards, also published last Thursday.

The government said in the backgrounder it had some sympathy for the idea that its policy should apply to COTS as well as bespoke government systems. It did not say it would. Just that an overwhelming majority of people in the public consultation said it should.

The backgrounder, the government's response to the consultation, said this rationale "would appear to be appropriate."

It did not matter to Taylor that this rationale had not been turned into an explicit clause in the policy.

"Buying a piece of software off-the-shelf is no different in terms of the principles to going out to a tender on an integration contract or something," he said.

He believed it the policy didn't need to be explicit about COTS. It included a clause that would require government departments to specify open standards in their procurement frameworks. He believed this was enough.

The policy also restated oft-ignored EU procurement regulations that should normally prevent COTS producers being handed undue power in public procurements: it re-forbade public bodies from using trade names as parameters in procurement competitions.

All of these conditions - that did not explicitly apply to COTS but did at least imply that they might - would also be subject to exemptions. Government departments could opt-out of their implied obligations to apply the policy to COTS when they thought there was no choice but to ignore them.

It could be imagined, for example, that a software monopoly that effectively imposed its own proprietary standard as the market standard, might prevent open standards emerging or might simply prove unmovable, or might give cursory support for open standards that would win a contract but prove so unworkable in practice that a revert to its own standard would be inevitable.

Say another

The Cabinet Office fumbled over the question of COTS on Friday. It excused the policy with the same reasoning Oracle's open software campaign group did: that the powers implied in the policy backgrounder were enough: that an explicit power in the policy was unnecessary.

This did not make sense for a policy that had been necessarily pedantic. The government had conducted a two-and-a-half year review to settle a semantic question that had been at the centre of its conflict with COTS suppliers: the question of what an open standard actually is.

The pedantic policy also clarified the semantics of its own language so there could be no uncertainty that when its principles stated something "must" be done this was an "absolute requirement"; and when they stated that something "should" be done, it was conditional. It left no stone unturned in the specification of requirements it said government government bodies to meet to be compliant with the policy. Furthermore, the government's two-and-a-half-year review had been motivated by a fear that its policy might be subject to a legal threat from COTS producers if it didn't get it right.

COTS was conspicuous for its absence.

The policy's intention, however, was clear. Government bodies would be required to build open standards into their user requirements. They would work as a community on the identification and promotion of compulsory open standards. A complex set of requirements would ensure they put enough thought into their choice of standards, so they faced the same sort of economic and systems questions that had led the government to back open standards in the first place.

When the government later clarified its position on COTS, it said it was obvious that in respect of all these measures COTS would get the same treatment as bespoke software. So it did not need to distinguish between them in the policy, it reckoned.

And anyway, said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman, the policy said it would apply to "all new government IT expenditure". That meant COTS as well as bespoke systems.

But it had defined "all government IT expenditure" as "new systems" or "extensions to existing systems". That implied not COTS. It also implied the inherent difference between COTS and not COTS: possession, power and influence.

So when it came down to brass tacks, in the face of intransigent and potentially litigious COTS producers and procurement officers given to the path of least resistance, would the open standards policy apply to COTS or not?

UK goes royalty-free... but not for COTS

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230px-Moses041.jpgThe UK laid down the law on software standards yesterday, finally fulfilling a policy commitment that has floundered for more than than two and a half years.

The government ordered public bodies to purge their computer systems of proprietary software standards, those data formats and interfaces over which dominant software companies had made property claims established under US patent law.

It decreed that public bodies must instead implement non-proprietary, open standards; under rules it had codified so tightly that it left little room for doubt that it had at last found the courage of its convictions.

Well, almost. The policy didn't appear to apply to "commercial, off-the-shelf software", those ubiquitous, proprietary software packages against which government had formulated its open standards policy in the first place. It was written in reference only to bespoke systems. But let's not spoil the party by picking hairs, for a moment at least.

Disregarding COTS, the policy was far cry from the prevarication that has characterised UK technology policy since 2010, when the coalition was elected. The government committed its open standards pledge to paper in 2011. The proprietary software industry immediately protested at what would amount to the confiscation of its means to assert monopoly power. The protest was led by COTS suppliers Microsoft and Oracle. The government's resolve was so weak it recanted.

Papier-mâché

Now reinstated, UK policy promises to stand as a fortification against the US software patent system's seemingly irrepressible colonisation of European computing and law. (As long as you disregard COTS, of course).

If the UK had not got its mojo back and revived its policy the collapse of Europe's prohibition on software patents would have been certain. Brussels had already pawned its own open standards policy.

Yet after such a fitful beginning it must be asked whether the government had ever invested any more faith in open standards than was necessary to sell election-winning ideas to voters, and whether it has now found only enough resolve to paint a papier-mâché policy in bold colours to silence critics, while kicking the heart of the matter into the long grass.

Papier Mache Egg.pngThe heart of the matter was semantics: if you took what was by definition a proprietary standard and called it an open standard, would it dupe everyone when put at the heart of an open standards policy? This was the central question the Cabinet Office used to justify 17 months of almost perpetual public consultation and industry debate. It was so absurd that a papier-mâché resolution seemed inevitable.

Indeed the heart of the matter was well hidden when the government announced the reformation of its policy yesterday.

Transparency

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced the details at a private conference barred to the press. His PR department issued the usual promotional guff, neglecting to mention how it had resolved the key policy question. Its technology spokesman took a holiday. Its press department claimed ignorance and snubbed requests for information. It leaked the announcement to the press selectively.

The heart of the matter was hidden deep within in a policy document that itself been placed obscurely.

Public bodies must use open standards that comply with the government's definition, it said: see footnote.

There is a definition, said the footnote, but: see glossary.

There are many ways to define an open standard, said the glossary - for ours: see annex.

An open standard, said the annex, is one that is royalty free - one that effectively gives no credence to property claims.

This was a resounding victory for the open movement, for the government, and for common sense. But the Cabinet Office had buried the nub so deeply that you could be forgiven for thinking it had something to hide.

Perhaps it hadn't found heart enough to see the policy through. This was the question the Cabinet Office refused to answer when it first declared for open standards in 2010: what power did it have to tell government bodies what technology they should purchase? What sanction could it enforce if they refused?

Francis Maude.pngThose non-plebeians privileged with an audience with Maude yesterday morning were given the message unequivocally.

Commandments

"Our Open Standards Principles... set out that Royalty Free open standards are key to levelling the playing field for open source and proprietary software in government IT," he told them.

Any residual doubt about his sincerity was eradicated by the "principles" themselves: the most authoritarian system of administrative dogma put to paper since Moses took a retirement job as food-ration monitor on a Kibbutz.

The principles contained within them 40 commandments the Cabinet Office said government bodies "must" implement as "an absolute requirement".

Each accounted for a different loophole through which a proprietary software company might inject one of its own standards into the UK's computing infrastructure.

Government bodies must write their choice of open standards into their systems specifications and procurement frameworks, it said. It would make no difference if they built their own systems or outsourced the work.

Existing systems would be marked for decommissioning if they could not be made complaint. Government accounting officers would be required to publish "legacy" exit strategies and commit to a deadline. They would have to seek approval for exemptions with detailed justifications.

Senior Responsible Owners of public IT projects would be made accountable for open standards and asked to base their decisions on a complex set of user, economic and legal criteria. All meetings and justifications would be published.

Liberty

John Winthrop.jpgIt seemed almost puritanical. It envisaged a community of public bodies conjoined by open standards, their disparate computer systems acting as one body, united under the covenant handed down to them in the Open Standards Principles.

This was the problem for protesting proprietary software suppliers, whose opposition was based in the enlightenment values of the market. The UK had no right to impose its authority on their property rights. There was a threat of legal action.

It came down ultimately to a question of liberty. But the answer was not straightforward and the Cabinet Office may have fluffed it.

Those users, software programmers, open source companies, public bodies and treasury officials who laboured under the imposition of monopoly rents proprietary software producers had claimed over standards might have found their own recourse in John Locke, the father of American Liberty: that they might not "be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man"; that they might not constrained as slaves, under the dominion of will, or restraint of US [software patent] law. Technology had not turned property into an imposition in Locke's time, not directly anyway.

The Cabinet Office may not have seen this when it slipped out its statement on open standards yesterday. Proprietary software producers had stuck dogmatically to the idea that government must allow them to do as they please.

The Cabinet Office therefore presented its policy as its own right, as a customer, to determine how it spent the £16bn-a-year it did on computing. Its policy made no direct imposition on the market.

COTS

The UK Open Standards Principles nevertheless contained among their 40 commandments, by which it had so carefully covered every eventuality, no reference to commercial, off-the-shelf software.

Its "absolute" requirements - those decrees of what departments "must" do - would apply to "document formats". But no more. The policy was about IT projects. It imposed no requirements on government purchasers of COTS.

The Cabinet Office was today unable to say whether this was an oversight or an intentional omission. A spokeswoman insisted the government had committed to apply open standards to COTS in its response to the public consultation which it also published yesterday.

But it had not. 82 per cent of people who responded to the consultation said the open standards policy should treat COTS just the same as it treated bespoke software.

The government response document said merely that this point of view "would appear to be appropriate".

But this view was not appropriate enough for the government to make it an "absolute" commandment in its policy document, the UK Open Standards Principles.

If there was any doubt about this, the reader could refer to the annex, where along with the definition of open standards the Cabinet Office had set out in no uncertain terms the semantics of the very specific language it had used in its decrees.

Thumbnail image for Oracle package.jpegThere it said "must" meant "absolute requirement". There was also "should", which was not absolute: it meant "recommended", and described those instances where the Cabinet Office conceded that there might good reason why a government department could not use open standards.

It didn't even bother with "would appear to be appropriate". We all know what that means.

Labour IT mandarins make comeback bid for global transformation

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The last Labour government's "Transformational Government" project has been rebirthed in California as a plan for world-wide reform of seismic proportions.

Four leading emissaries of the initiative teamed up in London this month to argue against the UK's open standards policy and have tried to persuade the Cabinet Office to adopt their policy instead.

The group, convened as the Transformation Government Framework Technical Committee of the OASIS standards organisation, was formed in collaboration with Microsoft by officials of a government that became synonymous with IT disasters. It has recruited the World Bank and other international institutions to persuade governments around the world to adopt its transformational policy.

The TGF Committee has told governments they should drop policies that address technology directly - policies like the UK's open standards policy. It has discussed instead a plan for a world-wide technical standards body and its members have expressed a preference for the controversial FRAND standards the UK has been trying to purge from its computing infrastructure.

Having been launched at a December 2010 World Bank meeting on the premise that the market had already settled all standards dilemmas of any importance, the OASIS TGF proposed in its first official publications this Spring a reform programme that incorporated privatization, civil service job cuts and a hegemonous computing architecture that all governments must follow.

OASIS TGF TC.pngClose-knit

Former deputy e-Envoy Chris Parker formulated the plan with the help of Microsoft worldwide policy director Steve Mutkoski. It was published by his company CS Transform, which had been paid by Microsoft to do work on the theme.

John Borras, a consultant for CS Transform and a senior member of OASIS, convened the OASIS TGF committee around the CS Transform plans. Borras had worked under Parker in Labour's Cabinet Office as director of technology. Other founding members of the committee included Peter Brown, managing director of a Brussels-based software consultancy called Pensive SA, where Borras also worked as chairman, and Andy Hopkirk, who as a director of the UK National Computing Centre in 2000 had helped Borras and Parker implement the Labour government's IT strategy.

Brown, Hopkirk, Mutkoski and Parker argued against the UK coalition government's policy at the first meeting of the Cabinet Office's open standards consultation on 4 April. This was the same team that had launched the TGF with Borras at the World Bank.

Ajit Joakar, another opponent of government policy at the Cabinet Office meeting, was notable for support he gave Mutkoski and Parker when they first elaborated early ideas for the TGF committee in 2009. Linda Humphries, the Cabinet Office policy official who convened the April meeting, was a junior official when Borras, Parker and Hopkirk held their senior posts there.

Denials

Borras told Computer Weekly the World Bank, European Commission and the European Regional Information Society Association were all "keen" to implement the committee's plans. The World Bank is currently formulating an ICT strategy for developing countries, while ERISA represents local governments across Europe.

He denied the plans had been formulated from narrow interests. "There's no chumminess," he said. The OASIS committee was "open and transparent".

"I've worked with many of these people over the years. Working for the UK government, I built a network of contacts around the world.

"We feel technology is not a barrier any more. So the focus has moved to business change. Governments are not organised in a way that is conducive to delivering online services. They need to restructure the way they do business. We are trying to help them on the best way of doing that," said Borras.

He denied his group was promoting a political agenda. He said TGF had not proposed privatisation and job cuts - described in his committee's Framework as "mixed economy service provision" and "restructuring of the public labour market". He said the plan was for "restructuring of operations to maximise the delivery of services...in the most efficient way". His committee had met with Cabinet Office officials who were considering its proposals.

Connections

Chris Parker told Computer Weekly Borras had known nothing about the Transformational Government plans being formulated at CS Transform until they were sent to him in 2010. He said Borras had merely been a consultant at CS Transform on a project basis. Parker said the original transformation plan had been formulated by Parker himself and Bill Edwards, a CS Transform director who also worked with Borras and Parker at the Labour e-Envoy Office as director of e-Communications, and also as managing director of Directgov. Edwards also joined their OASIS TGF committee.

Parker also played down Microsoft's involvement. He said CS Transform earned most of its income from governments. It had been paid by Microsoft but not specifically to produce the TGF proposals.

The TGF proposals were however formulated in collaboration Microsoft and CS Transform has co-branded a Microsoft brochure on the topic. Parker refused to discuss specific work CS Transform had done for Microsoft and whether the work had been supplied by Mutkoski, his colleague on the OASIS TGF.

Borras had in fact also worked for Parker at Gov3, the consulting firm the latter formed with Edwards on leaving the Labour Cabinet Office in 2004. Andrew Pinder, who as UK e-Envoy had been their ultimate boss in Labour's Cabinet Office, had launched Gov3 with them. Their work at the Cabinet Office had controversially produced a government system that forced people to use Microsoft technology.

Gov3 had similar proposals to those CS Transform adapted with the help of Microsoft to form the OASIS TGF committee. It was similar to their work at the Labour Cabinet Office. Borras said it was in fact an "evolution" of that work. The Gov3 work was also supported by the World Bank, where Borras, Edwards and Parker are official e-government advisers.

Borras said the OASIS TGF proposals did not require governments to adopt specific standards. But it was a topic the committee would address. It currently required government's to implement their computing infrastructure using the OASIS Service Oriented Architecture Reference Model.

Proprietary lobby triumphs in first open standards showdown

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Software patent heavyweights piled into the first public meeting of the Cabinet Office consultation on open standards on 4 April, conquering the meeting ballot with a resounding call to scrap the government's policy on open standards.

Open source and open standards campaigners complained they hadn't been invited to the Round Table event, the proceedings of which Cabinet Office will use to decide the fate of its beleaguered open standards policy.

Government supporters felt a growing sense of urgency over the consultation. Scattered and underfunded, they looked incapable of standing up to the big business interests that induced the consultation with backroom lobbying and have stepped forward now the debate has been brought out into the open.

Computer Weekly understands Cabinet Office officials regretted they hadn't got the meeting call out to a wider audience. Open standards supporters who attended complained it was stacked with opponents who easily dominated a meeting motion against the government's open standards policy.

Linda Humphries, Cabinet Office open standards official, said yesterday in a blogged report of the meeting: "The consensus was that the... proposed policy would be detrimental to competition and innovation."

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, which has worked closely with Cabinet Office IT policy makers, said he was "disappointed" the meeting hadn't been "representative".

Malcolm Newbury, consultant director at Guildfoss, said: "It was me and Graham against the rest. The patent lawyers had the most to say and they definitely wanted to include royalties on standards. They don't want the government to maintain its current position."

Heavyweights at the meeting included Steve Mutkoski, Microsoft's global head of standards, who flew in from Seattle. He was backed in debate by patent lawyers and experts from the telecoms industry that holds many of the patents being wielded against government policy.

Matthew Heim, senior director and legal counsel for $16bn US telecoms corporation Qualcomm, was present. As was Timothy Cowen, partner with Sidley Austin LLP, former general counsel for BT and founder of the Microsoft-backed Open Computing Alliance.

Behind them was Richard Kemp, senior partner at Kemp Little LLP, the "global top 10" ranked lawyer who represents numerous telecoms firms as well as record industry royalty collectors; Keith Mallinson, founder of WiseHarbor, a telecoms industry consultant; and Harshad Karadbhajne, a paralegal patent expert with Innovate Legal.

The debate swung wide of the truth as heavyweights complained government policy would exclude the patented software standards supported by their preferred software licence, known as FRAND - Fair, Reasonable, and non-Discriminatory.

Government policy, withdrawn under organized pressure from the patent lobby last year, had however not excluded FRAND. It had proposed giving preference to royalty-free software standards in government systems, but conceded FRAND standards might be used when there was no alternative.

That is the matter now in consultation. The patent lobby swiped the initiative with arguments that will feed those who accused it of using misinformation to win similar debates in other places, most notably Brussels, where a significant huddle of the heavyweights cut their teeth.

If they failed to expose genuine flaws in government policy, they at least focused attention on the points where government justification has appeared weakest. Cabinet Office's proposal for a mandatory list of open standards was unfair, they argued, because it would forbid standards encumbered with patents. This was however the whole point of the open standards policy, notwithstanding that it had, again, conceded patent-encumbered standards would be tolerated where no open standards where available.

These are the arguments with which the patent lobby induced government to withdraw its open standards policy last year and put it to consultation.

Open source campaigners said they had been left out. Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Standards Consortium complained the meeting had been held without his knowledge. Linda Humphries had just days before attended a British Computer Society meeting where Gavigan delivered a talk about her policy consultation. Gavigan had locked antler's with Microsoft's Mutkoski at the meeting. But Humphries had not brought the Cabinet Office event to people's attention.

Richard Melville, a member of the BCS Open Source specialist group, said: "No-one seemed to know about the meeting at all."

Simon Phipps, former head of open source at Sun Microsystems, and who also regretted missing the meeting said: "I'm hearing from sources that the Cabinet Office hasn't had much input from open source interests and is being lobbied extremely heavily by the forces of monopoly."

Other people at the meeting included Peter Brown, secretary to the board of standards body Oasis, who argued forcefully in favour of patent-encumbered standards. And also Ajit Jaokar, founder of research company Futuretext, a telecoms expert with a self-professed leaning for open systems; Dr Andrew Hopkirk, an independent consultant, formerly of the National Computing Centre; and Aingaran Pillai, open source software engineer and founder of Zaizi, an Alfresco systems integrator.

"What's an open standard?" says ISO

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The International Standards Organisation has admitted it doesn't know what an open standard is, despite trying to have the UK's open standards policy quashed.

The situation has left ISO and its franchise partners, such as the UK's British Standards Institution, looking a lot less authoritative. While open standards are being branded onto statutes around Europe, and after more than half a decade of controversies so great it caused street protests against ISO's treatment of the open standards issue, the legal authority on standards now refuses even to acknowledge its existence.

Yet ISO and its partners had so successfully lobbied against the UK open standards policy last year that the Cabinet Office withdrew it. And its lobbying, like that of all those who opposed the policy, concerned one specific question: what is an open standard.

ISO and its partners said the UK had got the answer wrong. So what then should it be? That's what Computer Weekly has been pressing ISO to say since January.

"ISO does not have a definition of 'open standard'," is what ISO said finally this week.

It sounded incredible. But it exposed how frail ISO's position had become.

Last year it had, along with other standards bodies and the software patent lobby, been trying to get the UK to change its definition of an open standard from one that forbade anyone claiming patent royalties on an interface or protocol to one that permitted them. But the redefinition would have made the official definition of open standards indistinguishable from the definition of a proprietary standard that just so happened to be the sort of standard favoured by ISO & co.

ISO and the rest of the standards and patent establishment has subsequently been unable to define an open standard because what they have been telling the UK government an open standard should be is indistinguishable from their proprietary model. They have been found out: they are in fact opposed to open standards, though they have not been as bold to say so; if it is not that ISO is too blockheaded to see it, it is then too artful to admit it.

The blockhead theory would be no surprise. The kernel of ISO's standards policy is the patetn accord it struck in 2007 with the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Telecommunication Union. It is a blanket policy to be applied to standards for everything from knob sizes and widget mechanisms to software interfaces. It sounds like a fudge because that's what it is.

Malcolm Johnson, director of standards at the ITU, said when the accord was struck that it was a compromise between patent holders and "the interests of end-users".

It was an act by which old-world standards bodies steeped in hardware patent traditions sought, in sweeping disregard of the differing modus operandi of software, to hold software producers to their old-world terms - like an overbearing parent, or an outmoded establishment fearful of losing its grip on power.

This lack of an open standards definition, let alone policy, is telling. It was formulated, or not, by the international network of ISO franchise bodies such as the BSI, whose seniors form the main constituent parts of the ISO governing council, its general assembly, and its technical advisory board. These members have in common a business model that is at odds with UK policy. The UK would have open standards that, like the standards maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium, are free at the point of use. ISO members use charges at that very point as a source of income. Their opposition to open standards must thus be couched in terms of their own financial interests as well as the financial interests of patent holders or they cannot be fully understood.

It is tempting in light of all this to look at the collective curriculum vitae of ISO's governing officers and conclude, blockheads one and all: either too old, too fat or too comfortable; what do they know of software?

ISO president Dr. Boris Aleshin, former Russian deputy prime minister, is an aviation electronics expert. Vice president Sadao Takeda, former IT mandarin at the Japanese Ministry of Economy and Trade (Japan's equivalent to the UK's blockhead Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) is a former engineering academic. Technical vice president Dr. Elisabeth Stampfl-Blaha, a lawyer by training, is a career, old-world standards wonk. ISO treasurer Julien Pitton is a former Swiss investment banker and likely wearer of bow-ties. Rob Steele, ISO secretary general, is a chartered accountant.

(It is only how it looks, but that is how they look: like the Adam's Family had landed cushy jobs in Geneva; or a recasting of the Soprano's: Rob Steele is probably in therapy over his inability to come to terms with the progressive turn the world has taken since he took up the administrator's cummerbund.)

The BSI has already admitted it did not know why it was lobbying against the UK's open standards policy, only that is what it had been told to do by ISO in Geneva. ISO in turn says its policy is formed by constituents like BSI. Does anyone know what's going on? BSI's resident standards experts are from non-IT, engineering fields. It's public policy expert is a career standards wonk who cannot explain its software policy either.

It was no surprise this week therefore when ISO was also unable to give Computer Weekly any examples of when it's policy might be justified. That is, when it might be justified for a patent holder to make a claim on a software standard. Neither could BSI.

Open standards rift tears UK policy to shreds

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Cabinet Office open standards Procurement Policy Note - 31 January 2011 - PPN 3_11 Open Standards.pngCabinet Office scrapped its open standards policy before opening it to consultation last month, opening the way for a major policy U-turn.

It issued a procurement policy edict on 30 November that erased a standards policy that had been in place since 31 January. It was revoked after a period of lobbying by powerful companies lined against its open standards policy that included Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance.

The 30 November edict to procurement officers, Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 09/11, said it superseded the 31 January policy, PPN/311. But it contained no superseding policy. It deferred to a forthcoming public consultation on open standards the Cabinet Office had announced 5 days earlier.

"PPN 3/11 has therefore been withdrawn," it said.

The policy had required public bodies to specify open standards "wherever possible" and had defined an open standard as something produced in an open forum, sanctioned by an international standards body, and made available irrevocably at zero or low cost without payment of royalties.

This position was vindicated by an unofficial consultation Cabinet Office held over the summer. 87 per cent of 970 respondents said an open standard should be royalty-free. Majorities agreed with other positions the government had taken on open standards. But the Cabinet Office did not publish statistics about who the respondents were.

The Cabinet Office said in a written statement: "The previous consultation was very helpful, but when the full review of responses was completed in November it became clear that there were still some points that needed clarity."

It said it was committed to open standards but thought retaining the current policy was "inappropriate" while it conducted a consultation.

A spokesman refused to say what points needed clarity or in what areas of former policy government was prepared to give ground to the proprietary software industry.

He was only prepared to say, "The Cabinet Office will be holding a new consultation on Open Standards in the New Year."

Cabinet Office's prior policy on open standards had acted as a line in the sand that invoked the spirit and principle of a long campaign for the liberalisation of public technology waged by leading Conservatives in opposition. It had been launched by Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne and as the keystone of coalition ICT Strategy had been implemented by minister Francis Maude.

It looked to remain stout against the anti-reformist position being pushed by IT establishment bodies with the most to lose from liberalisation. But its fumbling progress has been under sustained and biting criticism from standards experts.

Gerry Gavigan, standards expert and chairman of the Open Source Consortium, said the consultation was "stupid and unnecessary". It opened the field up to opponents of the policy and fed suspicion that it was bowing to pressure from proprietary software vendors.

Graham Taylor, chief executive of campaign group Open Forum Europe, said he did not believe Cabinet Office would weaken its open standards position. OFE had pressed it to strengthen the open standard definition deployed in its original 30 January policy statement.

Julian Swan, director of compliance marketing for the Business Software Alliance, said it supported the policy moves and would "work closely with the UK government" over standards policy.

"Reducing public procurement expenses in the UK does not require the adoption of a policy which undermines the value of Intellectual Property and Innovation," he said.

Outgoing deputy government CIO Bill McCluggage told suppliers last month the consultation would ensure its policy was strong enough to withstand a legal challenge from "vested interests", a veiled reference to the established proprietary software industry against which the coalition government has formed its policy position.

CSC bags phone support for cyber warriors

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Thumbnail image for US Navy Cyber Command look so dorky they wouldnt get their own movie parts - 100804-N-0807W-254.jpgTroubled US outsourcer Computer Sciences Corporation has been offered $145m to do telephone support for US cyber warriors and other grunts connected to an overseas extension of the Navy Enterprise Network.

CSC refused to confirm the contract. But details slipped out in an official procurement notice issued by the Pentagon.

The US Department of Defence said CSC would provide information assurance as well as technical support for ONE-NET*, an adjunct to the HP/EDS-built Navy Enterprise Network, dubbed by generals as the largest corporate intranet in the world.

The Navy has agreed to pay CSC $30.6m for 12 months initial work supporting Fleet Cyber Forces, a unit of cyber warriors hooked into ONE-NET in 16 naval bases in the Asian Pacific, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and around the Mediterranean.

DoD said CSC will provide "theater service desk support", field and network technical support, and help operate the network and systems associated with ONE-NET.

The Navy offered CSC possible contract extensions that could pay out $144.7m by 2016. It comes at a crucial time for CSC after a year of bad news, a resurgence of talk about it being a potential take-over target and the pending retirement of CEO Michael Laphen.

Similar extensions have for years given CSC a regular trickle of contract-win announcements for support work on ONE-NET under a previous contract that was due to expire. The last was awarded in March for just six months.

It's share price languishing, it will be under pressure to deliver some good news when it announces its second quarter financial results on Wednesday, particularly in a year when the majority of its announced customer wins have been options customers have taken out under existing contracts.

Bigger fish

The ONE-NET support deal is however small fry for bidders in Washington this winter. The Navy is organising contracts worth a reported $1.7bn portion to implement its Navy Next Generation Network (NGEN), a $10bn programme to continue work done to consolidate networks and plug gaping security holes.

The Navy has bragged that its core intranet has proved unshakeable. It had entirely eliminated network disruptions caused by hackers that, it has been implied, had embarrassed operators of the force's formerly unmanageable network-of-networks.

It did this after spending 10 years consolidating its jungle of disparate networks into a single homogeneous whole called the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), under contract with EDS (now HP).

By 2010 it had merged 744 separate Navy networks and deleted 24,000 legacy applications, leaving just 9,000 officially-approved software programs. It is set to become NGEN and is up for grabs.

Baited hook

CSC is bidding for the work with General Dynamics, which built ONE-NET and has outsourced its own IT to CSC since 1991, most recently under a $118m contract.

CSC brought out the big guns to win a piece of NGEN, hiring retired Rear Admiral Kenneth Deutsch last month to lead the bid. Deutsch commanded air raids during the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also networks & comms chief for the Space and Information Warfare division of the Navy and had a lead position in Fleet Cyber Forces, the unit to which CSC is answerable under the ONE-NET contract.

But ONE-GEN has, unusually, begun operation as a civil-government asset.

The Navy recently wrote that it had also agreed to give the US government ownership of NGEN network as it proceeds with the transition from NMCI to NGEN, a move that may reassure those who, even in military circles, warn that the militarisation of the internet is a significant threat to civil society.

The Pentagon has meanwhile agreed to allow the US Department of Homeland Security to take lead responsibility for security of civilian networks, signifying at least some recognition that the majority of "attacks" used by elected representatives to justify the build-up of cyber forces were mostly of a criminal and not military origin.

The ongoing network consolidation led the Navy to remove discretion over network infrastructure from local units of the Navy. It attracted protest over the centralisation of control. But nevertheless delivered a series of consolidated Network Operations Centers, standing orders for server and storage management, a single database environment, and adherence to Federal systems security laws.

This has led, after some serious problems in systems consolidation overseen by CSC and other systems integrators, the Navy to declare it is pursuing a cloud strategy.

The Navy admitted that in its focus to date on network infrastructure it had overlooked the importance of the information it carried. Data had taken a "backseat" while it was concerned with physical interconnection.

The Navy said in January it would address the data issue by developing cloud-based software services and virtualizing its infrastructure. Both also have become central to CSC's strategy.

Navy consolidation also brought about common desktops and operating systems. ONE-NET users are being given 3.2Hz Dell PCs with 40Gbyte hard drives, 512Mbyte of memory and "a two-piece stereo speaker system", the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association reported in 2005. They were at the time being loaded with Windows XP.

* ONE-NET is a rare example of a nested acronym and was, it must be concluded, stencilled by network nerds plotting cyber-game-theoristic attack moves round a whiteboard in a poorly pressurised underwater missile base: the Outside Continental United States (OCONUS) Navy Enterprise Network (NET) - ONE-NET.

Open standards: UK dithers over royalty question

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Prime Minister David Cameron - Reform - backwards.pngUK and Portugal are both about to decree a list of open standards that must be used in all public computer systems. But while the UK is still trying to decide what an open standard is, Portugal has already passed a definition into law.

The UK has been paralysed by disagreement over the matter. The crux has been whether an open standard should permit royalty payments - whether an open standard should be both free as in speech and free as in beer.

Portugal answered the question by fudging it. The British Standards Institution, backed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), has been pressing the UK to do the same. If it gets its way it would force the coalition government into a damaging reversal.

BSI has been in a face-off with Cabinet Office over its definition of open standards since May. They met last Tuesday. But neither twitched. The problem remains unresolved, even after the publication Friday of a progress report on Cabinet Office's ICT Strategy.

Cabinet Office can't back down without either conceding defeat or admitting it made a dreadful mistake. It made the UK definition of an open standard official in February. Open standards became the keystone of its ICT Strategy in March. They have long been the fulcrum of Prime Minister David Cameron's rhetoric on government IT failures and the Big Society.

Crisis

But it poses an existential crisis for BSI. It lives off money it makes selling access to standards specifications. It supports companies who want to claim royalties from people who need to interoperate with their devices. It can't back down without a game-changing modification of its business model.

Their differences seem irreconcilable. Then late last week, BSI took an interest in Portugal's Open Standards Act, which passed with cross-party support in May. BSI thinks Portugal might show a way out. Don't count on it.

Portugal's approach appeals to standards traditionalists and the software patent lobby because it is vague. It is vague enough not to offend those who don't want open standards, though that does depend on your definition of an open standard.

Portuguese flag.pngBSI thinks an open standard is what Portugal's Open Standards Act says it is: something formulated through an open process, described in a specification that is freely available, comprised only of parts that are also freely available and for which intellectual property rights are made available to the state "fully, irrevocably and irreversibly", with no restrictions to its implementation.

Free, in other words as in speech. But not as in beer. It introduced no explicit prohibition on royalties.

Sand in the oyster

Open Forum Europe, an industry group campaigning for open source software and open standards, said last week this was "one of the most enlightened laws of its kind in Europe".

Portugal does claim to favour royalty-free standards. But its law leaves a lot to the imagination - and to the discretion of those civil servants responsible for implementing it.

Gonçalo Caseiro - AMA.pngGonçalo Caseiro, board director of Portugal's Agency for Administrative Modernisation (AMA) with responsibility for implementing the Open Standards Act, told Computer Weekly the government's official preference is for royalty-free standards.

His office has discretion over what standards are officially deemed open standards and, like the UK, is drawing up an official list of them.

"The standards we are choosing now are 99 per cent royalty-free," he told Computer Weekly.

He also has discretion over an exception clause. If a public body thinks it has no choice but to use a standard deemed non-open under Portuguese law, it can ask Caseiro for permission to use it. He will err on the side of open.

Yet Portugal's law is "enlightened" only as long as Caseiro is himself. His administration's preference for royalty-free standards may change.

Then it will become apparent that Portugal's definition has been circumscribed by monopolistic interests. This is tragic from the point of view governments assumed when formulating these rules: that they were pulling down barriers software suppliers build with proprietary standards in technology markets.

European policy initiatives have conjured an image in which trade barriers such as import tariffs become a metaphor for royalties on standards. They say mandating open standards will save public money, and promote innovation and competition; and then fail to mandate open standards. Portugal's definition appears no more "enlightened" than that implemented in the most recent version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), the lowest common denominator set last year in Brussels.

Royalty-free caveats

One of the most progressive examples of this policy is to be found not in Portugal but the UK: in the bold definition Cabinet Office sent to procurement officers across the entire public sector in February.

The UK said open standards must be royalty-free. It was, as good as damn it, a clean statement of definition.

Portugal compromised its definition with caveats to placate those seeking to claim royalties on standards. An open standard could be encumbered with royalty claims.

The UK saved its caveats for a separate clause concerned only with rules of implementation: open standards would be used "wherever possible", it said. Standards encumbered by royalties might in other words be permitted in public systems if there were no choice. But those standards would not be deemed open by the UK definition.

Computer Weekly understands BSI liked Portugal's exception clause. If the UK clarified the loose exception built into its "wherever possible" caveat, BSI might see a way forward.

Tim Berners-Lee.pngBut it would not be satisfied. Portugal's definition has given BSI hope that UK's definition might also encompass those standards encumbered with royalty claims - charged at the "reasonable" rate determined by RAND patent terms, as they were explicitly under EIF. BSI wants royalties written into the UK definition explicitly.

Cabinet Office seems to have got itself in a twist. The issue is so much simpler when seen from the perspective of the source of its enlightenment, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

New and old testaments

W3C attributes the Web's success to Berners-Lee's making his intellectual property rights to the Web royalty-free in 1993. It demands members sign away royalties if they want to contribute to its standards. Royalties, says its promotional office, place too great burden on a standard.

This is what European governments had in mind when they started talking about a freely interoperable market of public sector computer systems and getting on the open standards bandwagon.

Things are not so simple when you delve into the nuts and bolts of the internet. But nearly. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the forum where internet standards are agreed, has no hard and fast rule on royalties.

Jorge Contreras - IETF and ISOC - legal council.pngJorge Contreras, IETF attorney, told Computer Weekly it had instead a strong royalty-free culture.

Its contributors were mainly hardware suppliers with strong traditional interest in patents. It was moreover fifteen years old. It's processes were established with different parameters than the naturally less encumbered software preoccupations of the W3C. They were well established, and not likely to change, said Contreras. It nevertheless required companies contributing to internet standards disclosed their terms.

"If engineers are uncomfortable about the terms they will design around it. Companies who don't want their patent designed around will make it royalty-free," said Contreras.

Fudge

The Internet Society (ISOC), the IETF's incorporated avatar, summed this policy up at last month's Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi. It was similar to Portugal's fudge.

Internet standards would be freely accessible. Specifications would be available without fee or restriction. It would be "possible" for standards to be implemented royalty-free.

But it is, for the IETF, a statement of reality. "Open standards mean a great deal to the IETF. The approach they take to IPR is felt to be the most constructive and the most realistic solution, given all the competing pressures," said Matthew Ford, ISOC technology programme manager.

ISOC does not have a firm grip on which of the IETF's 6,000 Requests for Comment (official forum notices) describe standards encumbered with royalties. Nor if the internet relies on any of those in its fundamentals - whether, that is, the internet is encumbered, or whether it is as pure an enlightened public space as is imagined popularly and in government policy. (The information is there for anyone who wants to trawl for it).

Some hardware standards consortia do adopt explicit royalty-free policies. It is becoming more common, apparently. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance is a recent example. (It had its first plugfest, where members demonstrated pre-release hardware implementations for interoperability under WiGig specifications, on Monday).

Ali Sadri, WiGig Alliance president and Intel's director of 60 GHz standards, said Intel helped found the consortium with the intention of encouraging industry-wide adoption of a royalty-free approach to standards, to plug the drain patent lawsuits had become on innovation.

Ali Sadri - Wireless Gigabit Alliance.png"When there's no concern for IP then the technology will be developed to the best because contributions will be by their quality rather than the [number of] votes a company has to push its own IP into a standard," said Sadri.

"I think Intel is using us as a guinea pig. I have heard they are re-using our policies in other consortia as well," he said.

Bulimic standards institution

The example of these IT consortia should intensify BSI's existential crisis (though only in relation to its IT work, which is insignificant, as we shall see).

A comparison provides useful context for UK policy.

The consortia are typically not-for-profit and often cover their administration costs by charging membership fees to companies that want to contribute to standards. They distribute standards at the "zero or low cost" rates preferred by Cabinet Office and challenged by BSI.

W3C for example doesn't charge implementers of its standards. They are strictly royalty-free. Though it charges corporate contributors, it invites hundreds of experts to develop standards without paying a contributors' fee. It charges only those with a financial interest in shaping the market in their image.

BSI Group claims to be "not-for-profit" on the basis that any money it earns is invested back in the business. It is nevertheless a £235m business dedicated to "growth through acquisition".

BSI Logo.pngIt earns over half its income from certifying companies under things like environmental and safety standards. It has an £18m training business and a £34m testing business. Companies can contribute to its standards free-of-charge. But it charges for access to its specifications. In 2010 it made £46m from the sale of access to 55,000 standards at up to £2,000-a-pop for everything from zoom lenses to food packaging and the .pdf document format.

In 2010 it launched One-BSI, its "platform for accelerated growth". This would involved cross-selling its services. It would sell a standard specification to a customer, then sell training to implement the standard, then charge them for certification under the standard and for software to manage the process.

UKAS Quality Management logo.pngThe consortia have elaborate rules for preventing royalty claimants hijacking their standards. WiGig has made some attempts to outwit patent trolls. Royalties would raise the costs to anyone seeking to implement their standards; these would then from their point of view not be open.

BSI earned £12m from its own royalties and copyrights in 2010. Its gross margin was 50 per cent. It made a £20m Operating profit and generated £35m in cash. It spent £9m on acquisitions of competing certification bodies.

(Big-heads vs. bell-ends)

The 111-year-old BSI is undoubtedly a great British Institution. It's kite-mark, introduced in 1903, may be the only insignia of Britain's imperial age with its reputation still intact. It's a certified international super-brand. But its profit motive and strategy of acquisitive growth raises a question about its opposition to UK IT policy.

The conflict between the old and new standards worlds has been playing out between BSI and W3C as well, though neither might describe it that way.

Governments typically sanction only standards certified by ISO and its national outlets (such as BSI). These bodies have not typically recognised standards developed by consortia like W3C and IETF. Now governments are making more powerful decrees on IT standards, the consortia need approval by ISO and co. The standards bodies meanwhile need to sanction the consortia to stay relevant.

W3C thus submitted its first suite of standards (for Web services) for certification by ISO last month. The terms are royalty-free. IETF is meanwhile waiting for a European Commission edict on consortium standards. Internet standards are not officially sanctioned in Europe. The Cabinet Office open standards definition gave equal weight to standards developed by standards bodies and industry consortia. But it is not yet official.

As Contreras said, engineers tend to work around contributions encumbered with royalties. W3C has perhaps been working round the standards bodies even as it signs licensing deals with them.

It launched a "community process" in August, providing free facilities for a preliminary standards process open to all without charge. The terms are royalty-free.

W3C says it is popular among vertical industry groups for whom internet standards have become important but would not normally have a reason to contribute to the W3C process. BSI may have come across a form of competition it can't acquire.

ISO-compliant world political map.pngSome in the UK have meanwhile grown fearful that the open data movement also championed by Berners-Lee (and adopted by Cabinet Office) will be undermined by profiteers at the Open Data Corporation, which has been incorporated like BSI by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the arm of government that has traditionally dealt with standards.

DoH deploys flimflam in battle for hearts and minds

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The Department of Health dramatically announced a non-story today, pausing from its negotiations with disfavoured ICT suppliers to publicly condemn - again - the computer systems they supplied under the National Programme for IT.

The department announced the "acceleration of the dismantling" of the National Programme. But could not say how it had been accelerated or what exactly was being dismantled.

"The statement today is a commitment to accelerate the process," said a Department of Health spokeswoman. "We are not giving today the detail of what that will involve."

The department announced a year ago that it was scrapping the National Programme for IT and has been in negotiations with suppliers ever since.

It is still in negotiations with suppliers and still announcing that it is scrapping the programme. But it cannot accelerate anything until the negotiations are concluded.

Primary programme suppliers BT and CSC have contracts for the supply of patient systems that extend to April 2015 and hold the NHS to paying a further £2.91bn for the scheme, said the National Audit Office in May.

Also over the summer, the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority sent DoH its recommendations for the future of NHS IT. The DoH spokeswoman said today the MPA had concurred with its year-ago announcement about the scrapping of the National Programme. The year-ago announcement, made by Health minister Simon Burns, had concurred with Cabinet Office IT policy. The DoH today said it was concurring with the MPA recommendations.

The DoH refused to publish the MPA report. It said it was a Cabinet Office report. The Cabinet Office, which is big on government "transparency", refused to publish the report. It said it was a report about the NHS and therefore the business of the DoH.

The DoH 2010 announcement had unveiled a "Connect-All" strategy. This would involve introducing common systems standards so that any supplier could supply any system to the NHS, simply plug it in and it would integrate and communicate with any other system. This was similar in principle to Cabinet Office policy for government IT.

Coincidentally, a story fell into your humble correspondent's lap this week that the System One patient system CSC has supplied to GPs and community Trusts under the programme was not compliant with the NHS Data Model and Dictionary. It was therefore not interoperable, and not in keeping with either the terms of its National Programme contract nor the "Connect-All" policies of the DoH and Cabinet Office.

DoH's negotiations with CSC are the most excruciating of matters that must be "accelerated" before it can get on with "dismantling" the National Programme. Neither party was able to confirm the rumour about CSC's interoperability.

Also coincidentally today, trade association Intellect, representative of BT and CSC, produced a report on the interoperability of NHS systems. DoH's non-announcement had included one new detail, which was that it and Intellect were going to conjure up a market for the supply of health computer systems.

The market had of course been asphyxiated by the DoH's previous collaboration with Intellect members in the National Programme. Intellect today said it aimed to "create a vibrant marketplace" for small health ICT suppliers by its new venture with the department. It attached the interoperability report to its press release.

The department refused to discuss what was really happening: that was its negotiations with suppliers. BT and CSC also refused to discuss the negotiations.

All it and suppliers would say in addition was how much the National Programme had actually bought with the £6.35bn it had spent to date. That amounted to a national network, email and booking systems, and software to archive medical images.

Commentators thus found it hard to grasp exactly what had happened today. The Daily Mail reported: "£12bn NHS computer system is scrapped... and it's all YOUR money that Labour poured down the drain".

A hubbub ensued. The DoH was scheduled to make a major announcement about the programme later today. Word was, it was going to be scrapped.

David Rose, assistant news editor of The Times newspaper, got closer to the truth, or at least expressed a view that has echoed around the corridors of National Programme suppliers today: "Lansley bashes Labour ahead of that party's conference?," he tweeted this morning.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley had coincidentally been doing the rounds with a complaint about the financing deals the last Labour government had used to build hospitals. The deals had many years to run. They were expensive. They didn't fit with the coalition government's aim to dismantle the NHS...

Lansley didn't really say he planned to dismantle the NHS. His department presumably only wanted to dismantle the National Programme, and hospitals, and any residual reason anyone might have to suppress their cynicism in face of such flimflam.

UPDATE:

BT said in a statement it was not renegotiating its NHS National Programme contracts with Department of Health. It was nevertheless in talks of one form or another about the future of its relationship with DoH.

That was relayed in media-speak: BT "continues to work with the Department to explore how best to meet the needs of the modern NHS".

That includes also the contract BT has to supply care records systems to acute trusts in London at a price nearly 50 per cent over prices expected even in the £multi-billion National Programme.

Shortly after the publication of this article, the Cabinet Office published its Major Projects Authority review of the National Programme. It has not published other reviews and has been unable to say whether its policy is now to publish its reviews or not.

The BT London contract had anyway been so poorly managed, said the MPA Review, it had a "crisis" that almost resulted in termination. All has been well, apparently, since about January.

That raises further doubts about the department's claim to have "accelerated the dismantling" of the Programme.

How FiRe Control burned £494m hole in public finances

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MPs published yet another account of bodge and splurge in government IT today. It was a familiar story. But one that for once had lessons for the coalition government.

The topic of today's autopsy was the stinking carcass left from the last government's IT-led reform of Fire and Rescue Services, called FiRe Control. Begun in 2004 and cancelled in 2010, it burned through half a billion pounds of public money.

The project was tabled in a frenzy over the "War on Terror". The emergency services had to be got ship-shape, and quick. So the Department for Communities and Local Government called in military contractor EADS. They then proceeded without proper planning to waste six years and £494m getting nowhere.

The idea was the encourage localism among the 46 Fire Services. DCLG did this by forcing them to ditch their existing control rooms and replace them with nine, pan-local centres. It then tried to force a new computer system on them. It said they had to change their working processes to fit the new system, which it aimed to take 'off-the-shelf' from EADS to save money and time. So much for localism.

If this sounds similar to plans being pursued by under the coalition's banner of localism that's because it is. And that one's under DCLG's remit too.

The Fire Services were of course excluded from all this important work. Their input would be required only when it came to paying the bill for post-implementation costs.

In all the rush, DCLG and Treasury approved the budget before they had determined whether the project was feasible. They sped past warnings from Gateway reviewers. They rushed on without properly planning what they were doing.

They also lacked the staff to do the job. So did EADS. So EADS subcontracted the work. DCLG notched up a bill of £69m for flash-Larry consultants. It paid £42m alone to PA Consulting. And the project was still so poorly managed the Public Accounts Committee said today it was among the worst it has ever seen.

The contract was so troublesome it took three years to draft. When it was agreed in 2007, the control centres were three months from completion. It was still "weak" and "poorly designed".

EADS went off on its own trajectory that had nothing to do with the contract anyway. The document had no means of keeping them in check. DCLG got through five senior responsible owners and four Project Directors - the people who are supposed to keep things under control.

DCLG kept insisting the project should continue. Local fire services meanwhile opposed the plans. They didn't like the reforms being imposed on them. So much for localism.

The department has put up another £84.8m to clear up the mess. The Fire Service has nine empty, regional control centres without an IT system to run them and staff still follow the same working processes they did in 2004.

The PAC said people should be held accountable. But it sounded like bluster. It didn't name the nine civil servants responsible, nor the lead consultants, nor the lawyers who drafted the atrocious contract, nor the companies to which EADS subcontracted the actual work. It didn't even name EADS or its Cassidian IT subsidiary. Nor did it actually account for the lost £494m.

The PAC had no shortage of colourful adjectives to describe just how poor this New Labour IT project was. It's recommendations were familiar: consult users, manage things properly, hold management accountable. We've heard it all before.

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