Open means open - why transparency matters

The Cabinet Office yesterday scrapped the output from a key part of its open standards consultation over an undeclared conflict of interest from a central participant.

The move came after Computer Weekly discovered that the independent chairman of the first open standards public meeting was not as independent as it seemed, and was in fact being paid by Microsoft to advise the software giant on that very open standards consultation.

As conflicts of interest go, it’s a pretty big one, considering the extent to which Microsoft has been lobbying the government to include its own definition of open standards into Whitehall IT policy.

But it’s also less a case of secrecy or malicious intent than it is one of naivety and a lack of understanding that the game has changed.

Dr Andy Hopkirk, who was invited by the Cabinet Office to chair the public meeting, is an experienced, knowledgeable and widely respected expert on open standards and interoperability, with a history of advising previous governments on their IT policy. As such, he was an obvious candidate to chair such a high profile and important event.

He failed, however, to tell the Cabinet Office that Microsoft was paying him to also avail itself of his experience and knowledge.

I had invited Hopkirk to write an article for Computer Weekly about the public meeting he chaired, and he kindly accepted that invitation.

When it became apparent that he had not declared his involvement with Microsoft to us, not to mention the government, I asked him to provide a disclosure statement to accompany his article. He was initially reluctant to do so, pointing to the “firm firewalls” he maintains between his different activities and customers.

I do not doubt for a moment that Hopkirk is utterly professional in maintaining those firewalls.

The issue is not the existence of an association – he is, of course, entirely free to take paid work from whoever he chooses – the problem is the lack of disclosure and openness about such an association.

But the storm in which he found himself the central figure is an example of how the relationship between government and its IT suppliers has to change.

Microsoft’s behind-closed-doors lobbying of the government over open standards is now a matter of record, but only as a result of leaked documents and freedom of information (FoI) requests.

The Cabinet Office has its hands tied – it was no doubt quite happy to receive an FoI to publish its correspondence with Microsoft, and if it could have done so itself without compromising any stipulations of secrecy from Microsoft, I expect it would have done so.

The output of the meeting Hopkirk chaired has now been removed from the consultation process. Given the domination of that meeting by the Microsoft-backed proprietary software lobby, I doubt the Cabinet Office is too disappointed about that either.

But it poses a rather obvious question: if IT suppliers are so keen to promote their idea of open standards, why not do so in the open?

Shouldn’t Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, IBM, HP and every other supplier that has contributed to the consultation publish their contribution? Why can’t we see, in public, what the position of each of these incumbent suppliers is?

In the week that a storm engulfed the government over potential conflicts of interest with the Rupert Murdoch empire, this is becoming the IT industry’s equivalent of the back-door lobbying of vested interests.

Transparency matters in public life – and in IT at least, the government says it is committed to that principle. That same transparency matters to every supplier to government – whether a major multinational software firm or an individual.

So we call on every supplier contributing to the open standards debate to publish their response, and to be open about their views on open standards.

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