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Bristol Council's open source plans hit by further setback

Bristol City Council's efforts to implement an open source IT strategy have hit a further obstacle, one that raises questions about the feasibility of the coalition government's IT policy.

Bristol, one of the most pro-open source authorities in the public sector, was set to become a model of government strategy, which was stated in the coalition agreement as an intention to "create a level playing field for open source software and enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components".

The city council's cabinet approved its ICT strategy in September on the basis that adopting open standards would invigorate its local technology business community by creating a level playing field for smaller suppliers to bid for council contracts.

But the authority has been forced to scale back plans to base its digital services and back-office systems on open standards since the major suppliers of council and web systems have failed to adopt them.

The council has been at such a loss to find a platform that will support this ICT strategy that it is now considering lesser alternatives while it waits for major IT suppliers to update their software with open standards. It is not clear that they will do so at all.

Luke Smith, project manager responsible for Bristol's content management system (CMS) overhaul, said the council was resigned to "cutting our cloth to meet our means" after a major tendering exercise failed to find a suitable supplier.

The plan had been to establish a base platform with a CMS that used open standards. Local companies could then be employed to develop innovative websites and digital services that could simply be "bolted on" to its CMS spine.

Bristol is now looking for an alternative that, since neither the suppliers of CMS or major back-office systems have adopted open standards quickly enough, falls short of the ideal.

"We just need to accept that when we are looking to do work with local businesses there may be a bit more effort required to integrate what they are doing for us," said Smith.

"They can't go away and build a portlet-based application on this standard, because we won't have one. The solutions we are looking at won't have the ability," he said.

"The lack of having a portal just may mean that work later on may require more effort or money."

Stephen Hilton, programme lead at Connecting Bristol, the public-private vehicle trying to nurture Bristol's digital sector, said, "Bristol has a wealth of digital companies. The sense is that as a council we haven't used or benefited from that expertise."

The council had consulted with 70 local firms over its CMS dilemma. A decision was two weeks away.

Hilton believed the council's open source strategy would create opportunities for local firms.

"Rather then enter a contract with one, all-singing, all-dancing service provider, we are probably going to go down the route where we are going to break it up into smaller pieces of work, to allow us to work with a variety of companies, and get a bit more innovation in there," he said.

Kevin Mason, director of digital and strategy at Proctor & Stevenson, a Bristol firm that produced the city's Better By Bike website, said there had been a "sea change" at the council. He expected Bristol's adoption of open standards to create a more innovative environment for local tech firms.

It is widely believed that large suppliers keep the market tied up with proprietary standards. The government's IT strategy was presented as a means of using open systems to free the market up and create opportunities for innovative British tech firms to prosper.

Bristol was forced to curb another major component of its open source IT strategy in September, after concluding that Microsoft's proprietary standards were so powerful they prevented it from using alternative software on the desktop.

City councillor Mark Wright told Computer Weekly that it was seeking to find ways of opening as much of its £8m budget up to local firms as it could, though conceded much of the work may be limited to the support and maintenance of Microsoft software.

Further reading:

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

How Bristol made a fudge from open source >>


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