Government open standards - the curious case of Microsoft and the minister

What role, if any, did science minister David Willetts take in helping Microsoft try to overturn government IT policy?

The UK government's decision earlier this year to commit to an open standard for sharing documents in the public sector was one of the more obscure parts of its digital strategy, and uncontroversial in the eyes of many outsiders. Only this week, government departments started releasing plans for publishing documents according to the mandate.

Most people would see little to argue with in the choice of a standard called the Open Document Format (ODF). It is widely used and respected, and is supported by the most popular word processor and spreadsheet products in the world – Microsoft’s Word and Excel.

But Microsoft consistently opposed the policy, which the software giant saw as its last chance to overturn the UK government’s broader plans for open standards. As emails seen by Computer Weekly reveal, the decision became an issue in the supplier’s Seattle boardroom, and brought the lobbying powers of the software giant into full force in Whitehall.

There has been speculation about the role played by senior government minister David Willetts, then minister of state for universities and science in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), but who later left the post in David Cameron’s 2014 summer reshuffle.

An investigation by Computer Weekly has revealed that – according to well-placed sources – Microsoft turned to Willetts to help win its case, with the supplier’s global chief operating officer (COO) Kevin Turner getting involved. But neither BIS nor David Willetts himself is willing to discuss the role the minister played in Microsoft's attempts to influence this obscure but vitally important part of government IT policy.

Willetts was the government’s liaison point for Microsoft, as a major employer and investor in the UK economy. He also served as co-chair of the Information Economy Council, a body set up to enable dialogue between Whitehall and the IT industry over future policy.

As such, if Willetts had favoured Microsoft over the many rival companies who stood to gain from the open standards policy, that would represent a breach of duty towards those rival firms.

Open standards

It’s worth looking back at recent history here. Open standards have been central to the government’s IT reform plans since the day the Coalition came to power – in particular, since Francis Maude became Cabinet Office minister in 2010. Maude said government must be “militant” about IT interoperability standards.

Even then, it took nearly two years to start an initial consultation on the topic in 2012. This was subsequently extended after Computer Weekly revealed that an "independent" facilitator in the process was being paid by Microsoft.

That consultation itself had already been delayed due to lobbying from Microsoft and its allies in the Business Software Alliance, a body that represents the interests of proprietary software providers. Microsoft questioned the government’s initial definition of open standards, leading to the Cabinet Office consulting on an acceptable definition, before releasing its Open Standards Principles in November 2012.

A few months later, the first release of the government’s Service Design Manual went one step further, mandating a preference for open source – but it was once more forced to backtrack, with subsequent versions of the manual watered down to say instead: “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.”

The battle over ODF

But the real battle began in January 2014, with the publication of the government’s preferred format for documents – the first big test of the long-held commitment to open standards. Controversially – in the eyes of Microsoft, at least – the Cabinet Office excluded the default format used by Microsoft’s dominant Office suite, known as Office Open XML (OOXML).

Microsoft had consistently argued that OOXML is more widely adopted than ODF – even if you don’t include its own products – and that the policy should allow for the use of either standard. However, almost every contribution to the consultation process – that did not come from Microsoft or one of its partnersstrongly favoured ODF.

At risk was the government’s multimillion-pound spending on Microsoft products, and on the Office suite in particular. While the Cabinet Office would deny it was targeting Microsoft, it had always said it wanted a greater choice of products and more competition for its IT spending. Annually, the UK public sector spends around £300m with Microsoft.

Eventually, in July 2014, the document policy was ratified. ODF won, OOXML and Microsoft lost. But the events in between have been the subject of much speculation, over the extent to which Microsoft was willing to go, to influence the outcome of the policy in its favour.

Aggressive lobbying

The supplier has history when it comes to the measures it is willing to take to persuade government to toe its line. 

According to Rohan Silva, a former digital advisor to prime minister David Cameron, Microsoft had aggressively tried to derail previous attempts to commit to open standards

Microsoft called saying that if we went ahead with the speech on open standards, open architecture and open source, they would cut spending  in the constituencies of the MPs

Rohan Silva

While working for George Osborne when he was shadow chancellor, Silva helped to write a speech in 2007 that would promote open source and open standards as fundamental elements of the digital government the Conservatives wanted to build.

“A day or two before we were going to give the speech, a couple of backbench MPs called the office. They said Microsoft had called them, saying that – if we went ahead with the speech on open standards, open architecture and open source – they would cut spending or maybe close altogether on research and development centres in the constituencies of the MPs they called up,” Silva said in a speech to the CDO Summit event in London, on Wednesday 29 October 2014.

“I was pretty worried about this to be honest. I went to see George – he said if Microsoft has a problem with the speech they should call us directly, so I relayed that back to the MPs. We never got a call from Microsoft, so we went ahead with the speech.” 

Microsoft declined to comment on Silva’s claim.

Open document formats

And so to this year’s open documents consultation. The sensitivity around the policy was well known, as the Office of Fair Trading had already asked the Cabinet Office if it could be an observer to the process.

The first known, formal approach from Microsoft to minister David Willetts came in an email sent on 26 February 2014 – the day the consultation was due to close for public submissions – from the supplier’s UK managing director Michel Van der Bel. The email was addressed “Dear David”.

In the email, seen by Computer Weekly, Van der Bel laid out Microsoft’s arguments for supporting Open XML, and attached a copy of its formal submission to the consultation, which ran to 16 pages. In the email, Van der Bel claimed that comments made on the public website for contributions to the consultation contained criticisms of OOXML “that are inaccurate or worse”.

“Microsoft is the only organisation to have consistently contributed to all the standards involved in this debate over a number of years,” Van der Bel wrote. 

Critically, he concluded: “We hope that the Cabinet Office gives appropriate weight to the expertise from which we draw our conclusions. If you would like to discuss this further, I would of course be happy to do so.”

Van der Bel acknowledged that the consultation was run and owned by the Cabinet Office – not by BIS, the department for which Willetts served as a senior minister. BIS had no official involvement or responsibility towards the open standards policy.

Deeply unhelpful

A few months later, on 6 June 2014, Willetts was copied in on an email sent to a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office. The email was sent by Microsoft’s global COO, Kevin Turner, based in the company's corporate HQ in Seattle.

“I know that the Cabinet Office has consulted on the question of document format standards for use throughout government and we are anticipating a decision in favour of ODF to be published shortly,” wrote Turner.

“We still advise against that, but irrespective of that decision, we are keen to avoid the kind of headlines we saw at the start of the consultation, which do so much damage with little positive effect on either government, business or, indeed, the consumer. 

"The sentiment these kinds of headlines promote are deeply unhelpful for our consumer and enterprise business and on themselves, appear to do little to benefit the business of government either.”

It took a further six weeks before the Cabinet Office publicly confirmed its commitment to ODF. Microsoft told Computer Weekly at the time that it “believes it is unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government’s decision”.

Even then, the Government Digital Service (GDS) had concerns over the response to the decision, stating in its 2014/15 Business Plan: "There is the potential for litigation on open standards."

So Microsoft lost. But how hard did it fight along the way?

Ministerial code

Under the terms of the government’s ministerial code, all meetings between ministers and external companies must be published. On the BIS website, the most recent list of meetings only goes up to March 2014, at the time of writing. It shows one meeting between Willetts and Microsoft in February 2014, “To discuss technology and innovation” – a generic description used for most of the minister’s meetings with IT companies.

Computer Weekly submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to BIS, requesting details of all correspondence or meetings between Microsoft and Willetts during and after the period of the open document format consultation.

BIS confirmed that the information existed, but denied the request, citing section 35(1)a of the FoI Act, which exempts the release of information used as part of ongoing policy discussions. Computer Weekly appealed against that decision, citing section 35(2) of the Act, which states that such information is no longer exempt, once a policy decision has been taken – and mentioning the commitments under the ministerial code.

BIS denied that appeal, on the basis of section 43(2) of the Act, whereby “disclosure of this information would prejudice the government’s commercial position if disclosed at this time". 

"This would not be in the public interest,” said BIS.

Computer Weekly contacted Willetts by email, requesting further information about his meetings with Microsoft, but the reply from his parliamentary office simply said: “David Willetts has seen your message but has nothing to add to what you have already been told by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 

"He is sorry not to be able to help.”

Key questions

Several key questions remain unanswered:

  • How often did Willetts and Microsoft discuss the open standards consultation?
  • Did Microsoft ask Willetts to talk to the Cabinet Office on its behalf, and did the minister subsequently attempt to influence government IT policy in favour of the supplier?
  • Why was there such a long gap between the conclusion of the consultation in February and the announcement of the policy in July 2014?
  • Was it BIS policy to involve itself in a Cabinet Office process, to help one of its most influential contributors to the UK economy, and a major investor in the UK research base?
  • And what might Microsoft have said to Willetts or to BIS that it would do, were the policy to go against its proposal – especially considering the previous threats to MPs quoted by Rohan Silva?

Microsoft admitted in a statement to Computer Weekly that it sought help from Willetts, but declined to answer questions about the extent to which the minister lobbied on its behalf.

“As part of our commercial relationship with government, and the wider public sector, we were concerned to read in the media earlier this year reports of plans to ‘abandon’ software from current suppliers. We felt that the government both risked making a decision that might not be in its best interest and appeared to have its sights set specifically on Microsoft. As David Willetts was the minister to whom we had been assigned, it was appropriate for us to raise this issue with him. We subsequently clarified the details of the discussion in a letter,” said a Microsoft spokesman.

“Since then, the government has made a decision to restrict the file formats it uses for sharing and collaboration to just ODF and HTML. The good news for Office users is that Office 365 and Office 2013 both have excellent support for the ODF file format, so their current and future investments in Office are safe. In fact, Office 365 remains the only business productivity suite on the UK government’s G-Cloud that is accredited to the government’s own security classification of ‘Official’ and which also supports ODF.”

As yet there has been little sign of Whitehall users migrating away from Microsoft’s Office products. But the company has demonstrated on numerous occasions the extent to which it is willing to lobby senior people in government to protect its interests. Some observers would say that is perfectly understandable, and only what a major supplier would be expected to do to preserve its revenues.

But we have yet to find out just how far up the Westminster hierarchy that lobbying went – and the real reasons for the omertà on both sides.  

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