The government has quietly backtracked from its publicly declared preference for using open source over proprietary software.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) published its Service Design Manual in March, laying down mandatory standards for developing all new digital public services. The document stated: “Use open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.”
But Computer Weekly has learned that the statement has since been removed, diminishing the preference for open source and instead positioning open source equally alongside proprietary products under a new section titled “Level playing field”.
The revised manual now says: “With the growth of free/open source software, many high-quality technology products are freely available for government and its suppliers to use and improve. But a large market still exists for commercial software products, and the availability of open source software doesn’t automatically mean that you can’t choose a proprietary technology if it meets our needs.
“However, it remains the policy of the government that, where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products that fulfil minimum and essential capabilities, open source will be selected on the basis of its inherent flexibility.”
Shift in focus
Government CTO [chief technology officer] Liam Maxwell said the shift reflects a change in priority to focus on creating a competitive market for software where open source and proprietary products can compete on an equal basis.
“Open source is at the heart of our commitment to deliver digital public services designed around the needs of citizens.
"The Coalition Agreement in 2010 was the first programme for government to include a detailed technical objective: ‘We will create a level playing field for open source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.’ This was reiterated in the Coalition Mid-Term Review,” he said.
“We firmly believe that establishing a level playing field for open source and proprietary software gives a much-needed boost to the competitive element in our procurements and opens up innovation. It also enables government to be an intelligent customer, so that we can break up uncompetitive contracts, put ourselves in control of our IT architecture and reduce the cost of government IT.”
Open source supporters blame the lobbying influence of the big proprietary software companies for the changes.
It is not a backtrack, it is an admission of the limit of UK government sovereignty
Mark Taylor, Sirius
Mark Taylor, CEO of open source supplier Sirius, said: “It's gone beyond lobbying and has moved into threatening.”
Oligopoly of suppliers
He said the government is ultimately limited legally in what it can do against the power of the oligopoly of suppliers that dominate Whitehall IT.
“What you are seeing here is proprietary vendors playing with this issue to attempt to retain dominance and control over an extremely financially lucrative market,” said Taylor.
“The truth is the government's hands are tied by external legal constraints, and the original statement, however desirable in policy and outcome terms, opened them up to manipulation and threat of legal action. It is not a backtrack, it is an admission of the limit of UK government sovereignty and a confirmation of the background power of the oligopoly identified in parliamentary investigations and referred to by ministers,” he said.
Maxwell had previously told Computer Weekly that despite the original preference, he was not “dogmatic” about open source: “We'll always use the best tool for the job – but open source has major advantages for the public sector."
He also said at the time: “This approach will also ensure we are not locked in to some mad oligopoly outsource.”
Maxwell is in charge of the government’s controls process for IT projects, where all supplier purchases over £5m require the approval of his team.
He has also introduced a new policy, as part of its Open Standards Principles, whereby the cost of switching away from a particular product at the end of its use is included in the up-front assessment of its total cost of ownership. Previously, the cost of changing from an old to a new product was part of the business case for buying the new product.
The aim of the policy is to make sure that proprietary products are assessed against the potential cost of lock-in, and so help open source software that complies with relevant standards to compete on a more equal basis.
GDS made extensive use of open source software in developing the Gov.UK website, but few, if any, Whitehall departments have used open source widely or in major IT projects.