Halloween Special Open source government: smelt in England

Thumbnail image for macbeth_5_lg.gifSlag is what’s cast off when you smelt metal. Excrement is what an intestine chucks out after it has sucked the life out of some juicy morsel. The Government Digital Service is a zinc-alloy digestive tract eating its way through Britain’s government administration.

All there will be – aside from the discards – when it has done eating, is what the coalition government really meant when it said it wanted open source software in government: an automaton as efficient as a perpetual motion engine and as cold as steel – shiny, oiled and ready to be sold off.

Just how close GDS gets to licking the plate will be entirely dependent on how willing government departments are for it to subsume their services. They have been ordered to give up their ken but the bell has not yet tolled.

If the coalition sees its ambition through there won’t be much open source in the UK public sector because there won’t be much of a public sector.

This was presented to government departments, remember, as a plan for open source software and open standards. The idea was sort of homely: the public sector would use public software, so its systems would be like a sort of sandpit that everyone could have a play in. That was the idea of open source, wasn’t it?

Cabinet Office assembled a group of open source all-stars called the Public Sector Group and charged them with overseeing strategy implementation. They were supposed to cajole systems integrators into supplying open source software, and persuade public bodies to procure it. But nobody would listen, they kept saying when they convened in their PSG meetings.

It all ground to a halt about a year ago. Cabinet Office and OSS campaigners had been ranging all over the shop for the first couple of years the coalition was in office. Open source was the thing to be. Now everyone is on sabbatical.

Tariq Rashid, who led the Cabinet Office open source strategy as its senior responsible owner, has left and apparently gone into hiding. Qamar Yunus, author of the ICT strategy and architect of the IT spending moratorium that made its implementation possible has gone back to finish a mathematics PhD at Cambridge. Mark Elkins, who as head of the British Computer Society’s Open Source Specialist Group led the open source road show round the government departments has gone to finish his PhD at Southampton. Gerry Gavigan, former Treasury official who led the public campaign as chairman of the Open Source Consortium, has laid down his gavel, and his chairmanship. Graham Taylor, who heavied things along in the back as head of the Oracle-backed PSG sponsor Open Forum Europe, has gone to spend more time in Brussels. Basil Cousins, UK chair of Open Forum Europe and PSG secretary, has gone into retirement.

Most of the dissolution happened this time last year after government CTO Liam “Gnasher” Maxwell told the PSG the coalition’s ICT strategy was being scrapped.

“The current Government IT Strategy is being refreshed in line with the Digital Strategy,” Maxwell told the PSG on 19 September last year. Then they all cleared off. The Digital Strategy was unannounced at that point. The PSG had one more meeting after it was announced, in November, with some more of the same talk there had always been and the same apparent lack of progress.

But that didn’t really matter in the long run. There had been this Digital by Default Strategy that web entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox fronted in 2010. That had sent GDS off, scoffing up as many of the public sector’s 820 independent public websites as it could get its chops round. It has been foisting their carcasses up on Gov.UK, the single web domain from which GDS asserts its dominion.

Digital by Default got thrown in the forge with the open source and open standards policy, and the “Skunkworks” cell that had just been turned into GDS, and the Gov.uk website got thrown in there too, and some hubble bubble toil and trouble, and some cheap smoke and slime effects courtesy of HM public relations department. And – cackle, cackle – what erupted was a white hot alloy they called the Digital Strategy, that burned like a Halloween phoenix with its given orders: that it must consume each and every major “legacy” government computer system, gnash it up, sack its back-office staff, and reassemble it with Frankenstein staples and masking tape into a web mobile app with some whizzy Java buttons.

The Digital Strategy is in effect the mechanism by which the coalition will privatize the UK’s entire public administration. It has been taken up by local government too, after central government squeezed budgets there. The impetus is the same there as for central government: spending moratorium, budget cuts, and the transformation of public services into automated web apps.

GDS is cranking up like a Hadron Collider with a missing wing nut, like, it wasnae meant to turn into a black hole but I cannae do anythin cap’n, she’s started sucking in the entire public sector.

The Cabinet Office says now it never developed the metrics it promised would hold it to account for its promise to deliver OSS to the public sector: records of what software was being used where. It appears no longer to have an open source SRO. It is reluctant to answer questions. Its companion strategy for open standards was laid up and then morphed into an open data initiative.

The Digital Strategy says departments should make these apps open source, when there isn’t a good reason to do otherwise. It seems at this early stage that there may more often than not be a good reason otherwise. But that is irrelevant anyway. Much of anything of substance is going into the cloud. Much of anything else will be in the hands of the market, which is inclined to use open source only as an unscrupulous market stall trader sticks the nice fruit on top of his foetid punnets to create a fool’s eyeful at the end of the day. There’s the coalition ICT strategy for you.

There are signs now the PSG might try and get together for a come back tour. OFE convenes tomorrow, All Hallows Day, under a new chairman – Peter Dawes-Huish, head of Bristol-based Linux-IT. Top of its agenda is whether the old gang should get together again – whether the PSG should reform – those that haven’t cleared off already. Mind how you go now.