Cabinet Office builds open source strategy on proprietary software

The Cabinet Office has chosen a proprietary software system to implement the keystone of its policy to create a level playing field for open source.

Under pressure to fulfil the government’s election promise to eradicate systemic bias against open source software, the Cabinet Office rushed through a procurement for an asset register last month. But it raised hackles among open source suppliers it invited to bid. They discovered the same problems that inspired Cabinet Office open source policy hindered their bidding for its own work.    

Cabinet Office called a group of open source suppliers and systems integrators together in June and told them it wanted an asset register, a system on which its policy has been contingent ever since it published its Open Source, Open Standards and Software Re-Use Action Plan in January 2009.

But it tendered for the system at last on 26 July, it gave suppliers just one week to prepare their bids. People at the meeting said Francis Maude was driving his office to complete the procurement quickly.

Maude’s March 2011 ICT Strategy promised an asset register by September. The procurement specifications, obtained by Computer Weekly, declared a successful bidder would have just one month, to 9 September, to produce a working system.

Aine McGuire, sales director of Liverpool-based open source supplier Blue Fountain Systems, said: “It’s very disappointing. To be fair, the Cabinet Office group were under a huge amount of time pressure. There was a six week time frame. It shouldn’t have to be like that. It didn’t seem fair.”

“I want to do business with government like every other open source supplier out there and it would be nice if there really were opportunities. We weren’t going to be building something. A six week time frame isn’t enough if you are developing an application,” she said.

Nick Gill, director of Nottingham-based open source supplier OpusVL, said his company could have produced a working register in the time given but his bid ran into trouble when it emerged that his company didn’t have the security clearance to do the work.

Cabinet Office vowed in March to solve the security dilemma for open source suppliers. Computer Weekly understands Cabinet Office was trying to resolve the matter with CESG, the the electronic branch of the secret service that vets software for use in government. Open source suppliers and systems were not getting accredited because their distributed business model lacked the powerful resources proprietary vendors used to sponsor software applications through the CESG process.

Gill was exasperated. “I don’t think there’s any prospect of them ever using open source,” he said, after explaining that he had been working closely with the Cabinet Office on open source strategy.

When it came to the crunch Cabinet Office had behaved like any other government department. After going to tender, it looked to see if there were any similar systems already in use across government, said Gill. Any such systems would inevitably be proprietary because they had only ever bought proprietary software. So departments chose proprietary because that’s what they had always done. Open source alternatives didn’t get a look in.  

“If this government want to use open source software, they will have to start doing things differently,” he said.

A source close to the bid, who asked not to be named, said the Cabinet Office had opened the bidding to SMEs as long as they could demonstrate they had enough project management, business analysis and marketing resources, and evidence that they had previously built solutions for the public sector a clear advantage.
“If you met those criteria you could also qualify to bid to build the next generation fighter aircraft,” he said.

Cabinet Office gave the asset register project, worth £100,000 over three years, to CDS, an established supplier of systems and information services to the defence sector. It’s e-PIMS property asset system is mandated for use across government.

The draft systems specification Cabinet Office sent to interested suppliers in June said the asset register would be so different to anything seen before that an off-the-shelf system would not be appropriate.

“Although this project is sometimes referred to as an ICT Asset Register, it is recognised that the purpose and solution required are not analogous with existing ICT Asset Register solutions,” it said.

The finished system was to use linked data and semantic web techniques. The resulting register of assets would create a way for government to implement its software re-use policy, by which it would catch out proprietary vendors who resold the same software systems at a premium to different government bodies.

Mark Taylor, open source entrepreneur and chairman of a Cabinet Office board for SME suppliers, said the system was meant also to address the government’s ignorance of its IT spending, a matter it has been promising to address for 10 years and was raised again most recently in the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into government IT.

“Everyone has been criticizing the Government for spending too much on IT and doing it in a closed, proprietary way. Perhaps an even bigger criticism is that they don’t even know *how much* they are spending,” said Taylor.

Computer Weekly understands the Cabinet Office open source team had been counting on the asset register as one of the primary means of achieving carrying out its open source strategy. It has been trying to get systems integrators to offer open source systems but a lack of information about those systems already in place, combined with inertia among government bodies, has led opportunities to challenge them over specific procurements have been slipping through its fingers.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said in a written statement: “Open source solutions can compete for all relevant contracts – however the Cabinet Office still must make the best decision for the taxpayer.
“The winning bid was assessed as providing value for money. It was comprehensive and scored highest when compared with the other bids on the basis of its ability to fulfill the functional requirements.”

CDS were unavailable for comment.