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Tory council's open source plans stymied as government considers policy

Mark Ballard

A leading Tory council has been delayed in its attempt to replace Microsoft with open source software because the government is yet to fulfil an election pledge to introduce open standards.

The Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, one of the four "vanguard" councils testing the government's Big Society project, also came to the attention of Microsoft after its IT strategy promised in April to "move away from the Microsoft Office platform and replace it with an open source or cloud alternative".

The council's IT strategy proposed open source and open standards would cut its IT costs by a third. But Liam Maxwell, councillor responsible for IT policy at the borough, said the initiative depended on central government mandating the use of open standards in office software.

"We are trying out open source. The problem is that Open Document Format (ODF) has not been adopted by the government yet," said Maxwell, who helped draught Conservative technology policy before the election. "Why hasn't ODF been adopted by government?" he said, calling for it to be done.

Since public sector software applications - and therefore most civil servants - typically use Microsoft file formats, anyone trying to implement alternative software always came up against the problem that everyone else always required documents in a Microsoft format.

"We are not doing this to stiff Microsoft," said Maxwell. "We are doing it to save money. We are doing it because we don't understand why we spend so much money on [software] licences.

"The standard definition for a commodity product is that someone has made an open source version. [Microsoft] Office is a commodity. So why are we paying premium pricing for a commodity product?" he said.

Windsor & Maidenhead council calculated that only 5% of its 2,000 employees with desktop computers had an irrefutable reason to use Microsoft Office.

"If only 5% need to use it, why am I spending all this money?" said Maxwell.

The councillor had said the same to Microsoft. "They said there was 'lots of value to be added through integrating their product throughout the piece'," said Maxwell. "We said, 'Where is the value to us?' They haven't quite managed to demonstrate yet, but they are trying hard."

The Conservative Technology Manifesto before the election proposed "a level playing field for open source IT by implementing open standards across government IT systems". This was tied to the transparency pledge, for which Windsor & Maidenhead was given its vanguard status, that government IT contracts above a certain value would be published in full. The Cabinet Office policy review team is due to visit the council on an IT fact-finding mission.

Maxwell said he has the support of the government, and is working with the Cabinet Office to make his open-source plans possible. He added that the previous Labour government had already created "inertia" by spending "enormous amounts of money" on IT.

"We are encountering difficulties from the last government's approach," he said.

Mark Taylor, chief executive of open source integrator Sirius Corporation, who contributed to the Conservative Technology Manifesto, said the Cabinet Office policy review team were taking open standards "very seriously".

"I know they are looking closely at Open Office. They have not figured out that there is a bigger opportunity on the server side," he said.

Microsoft declined to comment on Windsor & Maidenhead's decision.

"Microsoft supports the use of technology to save money in the public sector. We do not, however, comment on our customers' buying decisions," said a spokesman.

The Cabinet Office was not available for comment.


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