How Bristol made a fudge from open source

Editor’s note: Computer Weekly’s public sector IT blog is back, with a new blogger – this is the first entry by Mark Ballard, an experienced writer with a history of great scoops on public sector IT, who will be filing his insights regularly during a time when public sector technology is under greater focus than ever.

Bristol City’s Council Cabinet passed its controversial ICT strategy last week. And it went without a hitch.

Unless you happen to use open source software. Then it went the way of many another open source project, like a clown’s car.

And this not merely because the council decided to buy Microsoft software licences for 7,000 desktops, effectively throwing a five-year old Linux strategy out with the rubbish.

Bristol webcasted the event in a Microsoft format. You had little hope of watching it from a Linux machine unless you were nerd enough to troubleshoot the incompatibility yourself.

Not that you would have missed anything. Council Cabinet meetings are merely ceremonial anyway. This LibDem Cabinet had already decided to approve its LibDem ICT policy.

It looked remarkably similar to any other LibDem policy in power. Call it a fudge if you like. Call it deluded, or snake oil. You may even call it a heroic stand against the forces of Conservatism. But the effect is the same: declare open source and buy Microsoft.


But for Councillor Mark Wright, that would have been the end of it. Wright is a golem someone made from powerful LibDem icons in the Stoney Littleton Barrow on the night of the Flower Moon.

So he’s a rocket scientist and software engineer who wears a goatee. His only declarations of interest to the council authorities have been his membership of numerous charitable, church, school and civil rights bodies.

The only time he ever accepted hospitality as a councillor was to watch African music performed with a hiphop beat. Apart from the time he accepted tickets to see “The Ladyboys of Bangkok” in Bristol Castle Park, which is as expected as well.


Being a died in the wool LibDem means he also “gets” open source software. He pushed through what was left of Bristol’s open source policy after the “buy Microsoft” clause was put in against the only opposition it could possibly encounter: befuddlement and indifference.

Or ignorance and lethargy, as its called by the open source faithful.

It’s the same attitude that makes people buy ready-made, frozen Yorkshire puddings instead of mixing their own batter: they may cost ten-times as much, taste half as good and be stuffed with E-numbers – but it’s easier on a Sunday when the Eastenders Omnibus is on TV.

Some Bristol councillors were saying, ‘Why don’t you do us all a favour and just buy Microsoft’. The LibDem policy was to buy Microsoft, but then to squeeze open software and open standards into every bloody crack and crappy crevice they could find in the great Satan’s hide.

Some people don’t want the complication: just buy Microsoft, and let us all get back to our tea and scones, or class A’s and piercings, or whatever it is that old ladies do to the pass the time in Bristol nowadays.

What swung them in the end was the fact that a fudged open source strategy was still cheaper than going all out with Microsoft. And it has the Big Society Zeitgeist: it costs less and can only work if the locals get involved.

This do-it-yourself computing is behind the most enlightening aspect of Bristol’s policy. It’s same idea with which do-gooders have tried to inflict open source software on Africa.

Why pay some leeching multinational for software, it goes, when it could be produced locally with all the progress in skills, wealth and health that would entail?


The same refrain can now be heard in the Council Cabinet webcasts being broadcast from Bristol (though only by people with Microsoft software).

Cllr Wright, who as a Linux user cannot listen to his own Council webcasts, put it to Bristol’s Cabinet thus: “Bristol is rich with small and medium-sized software and media companies, many of them with excellent open source and modern software skills.

“We want to help those companies grow, and ensure more IT spend of this council goes into the local economy instead of being mailed off to California, which is the situation at the moment with licence fees.”

Microsoft is actually based in Redmond, Washington. But just think of any Imperial metropolis and you will get the picture. Think of 18th Century Liverpool, wage slave. The modern software economy has a familiarly infantilising dependency on colonial technology and capital.

Open source is therefore what development economists call intermediate technology. People like Wright hope the deprived corners of inequitable Britain will take to open source like toddlers to bicycles with stabilizers. Some years from now British enterprise will take off on its own and Microsoft will go the way of the East India Company.

Or imagine Microsoft as Ford and that Bristol is seeing the birth of Toyota. The problem is the only work Bristol City Council will have for local open source developers is in support of the Microsoft software they have been forced to buy because proprietary Microsoft standards are as sure a drain on progress as any protectionist trade agreement foisted by European colonial powers on hapless African chieftains.

That’s not any reason to hate Microsoft, as they say. Not any more than a teenager might hate an overbearing parent.

It’s all part of growing up. And the turn of generations. Something has to give. Because from Bristol’s perspective, “the only realistic alternatives are revolution or continued dependency”, to quote the development sociologist Ian Roxborough.