Opinion

An insider's view on the government open standards consultation

Editor's note: This article was written by Andrew Hopkirk in response to a blog post on Computer Weekly's Public Sector IT blog reporting on the first public meeting held as part of the UK government's open standards consultation. We offered Andy the opportunity to respond in full, and this is the article he has written.

I was the facilitator and moderator of the open standards roundtable event held as part of the government consultation on open standards, therefore it seemed appropriate that I paint a more complete and correct picture of the event.

The event was hosted by Linda Humphries of the Cabinet Office, the official charged with running the Open Standards consultation. Although Linda and I were participants in the event, we were not participants in the discussion save to manage it and correct matters of fact or interpretation as discussion flowed.

As the event is now a closed matter of record, I have offered a few personal, interim opinions along the way below - I continue to listen as the consultation works its way to a close at the end of April. I was the director of the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) certification and accreditation schemes at the National Computing Centre in the 2000s - the government's previous mandated open standards scheme, and a mandation that failed to gain sustainable public sector community traction in the end. With that field experience and others in mind, I will offer my own response to the consultation in due course.

For brevity, I have made my comments below assuming that readers are already familiar with Linda Humphries' original blog posting on the Government Digital Service blog and the report on Computer Weekly's Public Sector IT blog.

On the roundtable event participants:

Concerning those [among the open standards community] who say they felt left out and could have been invited or made aware of the opportunity – the Cabinet Office was under no obligation to invite anyone or any organisation specifically. The meeting was simply open to all who wished to attend and was advertised in the consultation website and via social media. One has to listen in order to hear, sometimes.

My understanding was that, in fact, initial expectations of the numbers willing to spend an afternoon in central London discussing IT market competition and UK-European policy interaction were exceeded. As far as I know, all parties were welcomed in as they came forward.

In the end there were 17 participants who primarily didn’t have to be there but who did come along to participate in 2½ hours of quiet and considered discussion.

I take exception to the notion that the meeting was divided into "open standards supporters" and "opponents". I’d be very confident in asserting without checking that not one single participant was against openness in general or against standards (i.e. things formalised at standards setting organisations) or against open standards (as each may have chosen to define this conjunction for themselves).

The draft government policy suggests a specific, relatively narrow re-definition of "open standard" and, yes, while there were differing opinions as to the merits of that at the table, discussion of the definition was out of scope so we all accepted it "as is" and focused instead on the three questions put by Cabinet Office about the application of the policy.

The participants group of 17 comprised, in my opinion, significant and broad expertise: in relevant legal matters (6 people), in EU/UK public sector management and administration responsibilities (6), open source software-derived businesses/interests (3) and other kinds of software businesses/interests (1), analyst/consultants (3), and from a likely soon to be "EU recognised standards setting body" (1). Don't be tempted to add the numbers up; I've counted some as having more than one area of expertise.

As to the relative weight of contributions they made on the day, remember, the topic of the meeting was competition and UK/EU policy interaction; so, I suggest unsurprisingly perhaps, the legal and policy contingents present both had much to say and particularly relevant, in-depth experience from which to say it. That said, my task as facilitator and moderator was to encourage and draw out contributions from each around the table at least once during the 2 ½ hours and I discharged that duty.

On the outcome of roundtable event:

Yes, it is good that debate is now in the open – although I’ll reserve agreement with the report as to how that has come about.

There has been precious little debate and little or no opportunity to challenge evidence - I grow tired of unsubstantiated assertions being bandied about by interest groups and interested individuals. Having been in the field advocating the last similar mandated policy initiative – the UK e-GIF – from some 10 years ago, I welcome any serious opportunity to tease out these complex issues and help work towards a sustainable, balanced outcome.

The outcome of the event is nothing more than information for the Cabinet Office to fold into its consideration of all of the evidence gathered in the consultation. While I’m confident that the participants would wish that what they came to say will be taken seriously in reciprocation for their efforts, it’s unlikely to be as determining as put in the Computer Weekly blog article.

The “meeting motion” referred to in the article was not for or against the whole of “the government’s open standards policy” per se. This misrepresentation needs to be corrected.

A vote was used to close the 40-minute session on the first question: “Will the open standards policy (as stated, no discussion of definitions) be beneficial or detrimental for innovation and competition in the UK and Europe?” essentially as follows:

  1. The proposed policy, detrimental or beneficial for innovation? (Y/N) and;
  2. The proposed policy, detrimental or beneficial for competition? (Y/N).

I counted 13:3 for "gut feel is detrimental" in answer to both; as, to be fair, is correctly summarised in the quotation from the Government Digital Service blog.

The significance of this result should not be overstated however, given that it is related to only one of the three questions posed at the event. But it is notable surely that out of the 17 persons present covering six broad areas of relevant expertise, there was a clear "gut feeling" that at the very least this specific area - competition and innovation impacts - needs longer and deeper investigation before the policy is set and implemented.

Further, to the report that “patent lawyers…definitely wanted to include royalties on standards. They don't want the government to maintain its current position", my recollection is that they pointed out the fact that such things exist and that complex issues are at play here. A balanced approach to evidence-based policy development needs to hear about this therefore, and then deal with it openly and transparently in an impartial manner. Participants were specifically not asked what they "want". They were asked to respond to the three topic questions, keep on topic, be respectful of other opinions offered and be prepared to evidence any assertions of fact they made.

On what the draft policy actually says:

The draft policy clearly states that the government may compel the use of (according to the new UK government definition) open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in “common government contexts”.

To the extent that the proposed restriction-free (RF) test is a go/no go toggle for "UK government open standard" status - which is eminently unclear in the consultation document - one interpretation of the draft policy is precisely that it may be used to compel exclusion of market offerings based on the non-RF FRAND [fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory] standards in these very loosely and broadly specified “contexts”.

Is this a big deal or not? Well, it’s very hard to tell given there are no illustrative examples or Cabinet Office policy impact analyses given for us all to chew on. But consider these:

First, “common government contexts” is pretty much everything everywhere across the UK public sector IT estate. What software anywhere is, in the end, not part of interchange for software interoperability, data or documents?

Second, the size of the UK public sector IT marketplace in relation to the whole IT marketplace in the UK is such that when this particular market participant decides to "act as one" it has the capacity to go well beyond any "internal levelling of playing fields" and steer the market to favour some commercial interests over others. To be clear, I underline that free/open source commercial interests are just as interested in winning government preferential support for their products and services as any others and, if, as a consequence of this policy the government concedes such, then that that may raise some serious fairness and competition issues?

Finally, for the record:

First, there is an unbalanced summary of Peter Brown’s contribution to the meeting as a whole. As secretary to the board of standards group OASIS and an official of the European Parliament on long-term secondment, I felt he was at pains to separate the very different hats he wears from each other and from his personal opinions.

On the specific point of his making statements on the day about merits of both non-RF FRAND and RF FRAND standards licensing, it needs to be noted that OASIS rules permit both because that is what OASIS members want and Brown was thus perfectly right to point that out and defend it wearing his OASIS hat.

Yes, OASIS and its members and OASIS standards consumers generally much prefer RF FRAND licensing, but OASIS has procedures to accommodate non-RF FRAND if that proves necessary to achieve consensus in standard making. (And by the way, similarly at W3C, the World Web  Consortium  – a fact I see consistently misrepresented by pro-RF licensing advocates to the effect that it appears W3C will accept nothing but RF licensing in its standards on principle when in fact my reading of their web site is that this is not true.)

Second, the three questions discussed at the roundtable event were (in order taken):

1. Will the open standards policy be beneficial or detrimental for innovation and competition in the UK and Europe?

2. Is the proposed UK policy compatible with European policies, directives and regulations (existing or planned)?

3. Are there any legal or procurement barriers to mandating specific open standards in the UK government's IT?

For (1) I’ve already reported the gut feel outcome of the first – “detrimental to both”.

For (2) there were doubts about the answer being "yes".

For (3), given the outcome of the discussion about questions 1 and 2, possibly "yes", more work needs to be undertaken – I’d suggest with specific examples of implementation scenarios – because abstract analysis is proving inconclusive thus far.

Third, the open invitations to the remaining two roundtable events can be seen by clicking here.

Dr Andrew Hopkirk (pictured) was the pro bono facilitator/moderator at the Cabinet Office "Open standards: open opportunities" consultation roundtable event on 4 April 2012. The views expressed are his current reflections on an ongoing debate.

Disclosure:

Personal statement – In the introduction to this article I referred to my experience with the e-GIF scheme “and others in mind”. I’ve been asked to clarify other associations. By way of clarification and noting that I maintain a strict firewall between the different activities I am engaged in from time to time, briefly: arising from my previous work at The National Computing Centre and since as an independent consultant, I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective. I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. I have not been asked to publicly or privately support any client brief or position in the government consultation.

 

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This was first published in April 2012

 

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