Public sector IT chiefs favour open source

Open source software suits the sharing, service-based mindset of public sector end-users

Open source software suits the sharing, service-based mindset of public sector end-users

Ever since Microsoft changed the way users are charged for Windows software licences in 2002, IT managers involved in the local delivery of public services have been reassessing the way they procure and use software.

Changes such as the Microsoft annual licence fee brought into sharp focus how much large organisations with a substantial Microsoft presence on the desktop were spending on licences.

For example, a large local council with between 10,000 and 15,000 PCs would be buying in the region of £1m worth of software licences a year.

There are about 850,000 PCs in use in the local authority sector in the UK. Many of these run Microsoft. That represents a lot of money and explains why IT managers have started to pay this area a great deal more attention and to consider the possibilities presented by open source software.

In the short term, local authority IT managers association Socitm was able to negotiate a substantial discount from Microsoft on some of the licensing charges, some in the region of 50%.

But if that was phase one, Socitm's next objective was about looking forward and considering what alternatives there are.

The ultimate goal of IT managers working in the public sector is to serve the citizen as best they can. From an IT perspective, this is about getting the right information to the citizen at the right time.

The workplace can be a complex environment. There are different technologies and different versions of the same technology. To improve service, the aim is to create an environment of interoperability in the public sector, not just for the desktop but through to the web and legacy systems, where files can be shared by staff who do not need a degree in computer science to use them. This means developing an open IT architecture in government.

One advantage of this is that you are not locked in with one supplier. As a user, it enables you to grow the number of your suppliers, which ultimately means you increase the quality and reduce the cost of your software.

The public purse is not infinite - if local authorities are to increase the number of users and services they offer, they cannot work on a per capita basis. That would be far too expensive.

Investigating open source software is a step towards trying to achieve both goals. Open source has the potential to offer some major opportunities, such as the way the open source community unites to develop and enhance its software. This is attractive to the public sector, where sharing ideas and software makes a lot of sense.

Unlike the private sector, where everyone is protectionist, in the public sector there is an environment of open sharing because ultimately people are all working towards the same goal of serving the citizen. If they can share techniques and best practice that will be to the greater good.

Also, open source software is important in the European Union, where there is an increased awareness of the benefits of working this way. It is more in the mainstream of IT there and Socitm is looking to examples from countries such as Germany to see how they have benefited from it.

Socitm is also realistic - it is not saying that there is no place for Microsoft. There is functionality in its products that is essential to the provision of IT in the public sector.

But IT chiefs are after more choice - our challenge to Microsoft is to be more aggressive with its pricing and the options it can offer so that it can compete in the future open source world.

Bob Griffith is secretary of the open source group at the Society of IT Management

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