The Cabinet Office has pulled in a system integrator, Liberata, for questioning over its acquisition of a police data hub that may give it an influential position over IT projects supporting Big Society initiatives.
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The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) gave Liberata the data hub, called the Code List Management System (CLMS), in April in exchange for 8% of any profits the supplier made from selling its services to the private sector.
But after Computer Weekly revealed the police data hub deal had not only been made in contrast to government open source strategy, but would give Liberata potentially significant influence over the Big Society infrastructure, the Cabinet Office called on Liberata to explain itself.
Computer Weekly has learned that Qamar Yunus, Cabinet Office lead on open source, told Liberata to prepare its excuses for not making the CLMS available under an open source software licence.
Qamar Yunus told David Mitton, the Liberata manager responsible for CLMS, the software had been developed by the public sector, using taxpayers' money, and should therefore be open-sourced.
The Home Office decision to close the NPIA in 2012 pressed the agency to find safe homes for its assets, precipitating commercial deals that ignored Cabinet Office open source policy.
The Localism Bill meanwhile promised public bodies power to turn a profit, increasing temptation for the public sector to cash in on proprietary software licensing arrangements, just as the Cabinet Office makes its effort to lessen the influence suppliers have gained over government IT with proprietary systems.
But the Home Office announced last week the NPIA would effectively be privatised, giving private companies a greater interest in police IT assets and clashing with Cabinet Office plans to lessen the hold big suppliers have over public sector computing.
The Cabinet Office ICT strategy declared a preference for public computer systems to be covered by open source licences, which would mean anyone could access public software code and contribute to its development. The model had been a bedrock of the "IT-enabled Big Society", described by incoming open source policy advisor Liam Maxwell as a system in which services could be swapped in and out of local council hubs like cassette tapes. The policy had been promoted in opposition by chancellor George Osborne and prime minister David Cameron, and has since been pushed by Number 10.
"Where appropriate, government will procure open source solutions," said the ICT Strategy in March. "When used in conjunction with compulsory open standards, open source presents significant opportunities for the design and delivery of interoperable solutions."
CLMS had been one of the NPIA's most precious non-commercial assets, because it had been one of the core components of the Police National Database, the system launched in June in response to the 2006 Bichard Inquiry into intelligence failures that denied police opportunities to thwart the Soham murders. CLMS ensured that 43 local suspect databases across England and Wales all stored data in a way that could be matched meaningfully, pre-validating thousands of values that might populate police records.
Andy Waters, the NPIA business development manager who gave CLMS to Liberata, said he now couldn't comment on it, because knowledge of the system had become the system's integrator's "commercial confidentiality".
But Andy Waters confirmed the open source question had come up for discussion since the Cabinet Office had intervened, and he said he was pleased there had been such progress. Liberata was formulating a response, he said, that would be announced in a couple of weeks.
Bill McCluggage, Cabinet Office director of ICT policy, recently attempted to clarify the government's position on open standards that may also be construed as a revision of open source policy.
Bill McCluggage admitted to delegates at a Guardian Computing conference that there had been confusion over the terms "open source" and "open standards". It left the Cabinet Office position on both looking unclear, a situation further clouded by developments at the NPIA.
Computer Weekly understands, however, that the Cabinet Office has pressed Liberata to commit to open standards in its choice of formats for distributing code lists.
The NPIA gave the systems integrator permission to sell CLMS services to the private sector, where the tool might be valuable for companies to connect with public computer systems as agents in the Big Society, as long as it provided its data-matching services to the public sector free of charge.
The vision of public sector computing assets being open source had, however, been more radical than systems integrators have been able to appreciate. The idea was that public computer systems were public assets, over which no single company could claim the sort of ownership that gave them power to claim monopoly rents usually enjoyed under proprietary software licences. Companies seeking to commercialise their involvement in such systems would have to sell services in the use of or modification of such assets.
Computer Weekly understands Yunus also told Liberata the Cabinet Office expected the supplier to allow any firm to use the CLMS assets to provide the same services. But Liberata has already acquired rights over the NPIA system.