Whitehall open source plan heralds a behaviour change for suppliers

Has anyone kept a count of the number of times the government has said it is going to move to open source software? It’s been a favoured goal for many years without ever seriously looking like it would be achieved.

This time, says the Cabinet Office, it’s going to be different. This time, open government means open standards and open source. But will it?

Previous attempts to force open source in IT procurements turned out to be little more than a negotiating tactic. Microsoft once put together an extensive justification for why its software was actually cheaper in the long run than open source – but in the end signed the biggest ever government-wide software licensing deal at greatly reduced cost.

So is the latest plan simply another attempt to reduce the cost of public sector IT in this age of austerity? That’s a big driver of course, but this time it is more about trying to change the behaviours of the major IT suppliers.

Deputy government CIO Bill McCluggage told a Computer Weekly roundtable debate last week that what Whitehall ultimately wants from its G-Cloud strategy is, “No up-front costs, no [contractual] lock-in to time, and no lock-in to volume.”

He drew the analogy of London’s cycle hire scheme – the “Boris bikes” – where the customer has no initial charge to pay, can keep the bike for as long as they like, and use them as often as they like, simply paying as they go.

Think about that in the context of open source, where the biggest commercial differentiator with proprietary packaged software is the lack of an initial licence fee to pay – there is only the cost of ongoing support and maintenance. That, ultimately, is the real goal. No lock-in, and payment only for what is used, when it is used, with no technical or commercial restrictions on interoperability or integration.

Suppliers blame the government procurement ecosystem for their inability to deliver on previous requests for open source. But this time, that excuse will no longer wash. It’s the principles of open source that government really wants to see from its suppliers, more than the products.