The Cabinet Office has retracted the bold commitment it made to open standards in its ICT strategy after a bitter battle with the standards lobby.
The government ICT strategy made clear and repeated assertions it would mandate open standards of interoperability for public IT systems and cited them as an enabler of other policy commitments, including breaking up the large IT systems to make them more manageable, breaking up the oligopoly of large IT suppliers and making room for innovative SMEs to thrive.
But Bill McCluggage, deputy government CIO and Cabinet Office director of ICT policy (pictured), told a Guardian Computing conference at London's Excel Centre yesterday the government would mandate only a few open standards after all. He insisted the Cabinet Office had never intended anything more.
"The implementation of open standards will provide us with an opportunity to mandate a handful," said Bill McCluggage.
Rethink on open standards strategy
"You may have taken the impression when you read the ICT strategy," McCluggage started to say, before rephrasing: "It doesn't say we will mandate all open standards, it says we will decide upon a series of open standards and then we will decide which ones to almost fixate upon in terms of delivery."
The deputy government CIO said his office would soon conclude which standards it preferred, after digesting the 1,000 responses received from its standards survey. It obtained 397 responses alone on the question of what comprised an open standard.
The issue proved so contentious for the Cabinet Office that it drew attacks from standards experts, threats of expulsion from international standards bodies and stepped on the toes of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, where standards policy usually resides.
McCluggage said he had had to "remove various knives from my back" after holding the standards debate.
Open source confusion
But McCluggage acknowledged confusion over the definitions of open source software and open standards. He admits the Cabinet Office now has problems working out a way forward.
"We consistently sat down for probably the last nine months, having a discussion around what effectively are two different things but actually have been mixed," McCluggage said.
"We had feedback last week, which was, 'You told us you were going to be mandating x,' when really we are not mandating x, we are mandating y - or will do. And that does open up a lot of problems for us, as we design the new approach to the future."
McCluggage nevertheless restated the Cabinet Office commitment to open standards and open source software. McCluggage said those commitments are crucial for government ICT in the Big Society.
The department was also committed to a common ICT infrastructure, "ending the oligopoly of ICT suppliers" and supplier lock-in, he said. McCluggage said these policies were key to the Big Society and linked to the government's localism agenda.
Original Cabinet Office open standards strategy
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude promised to "impose compulsory open standards, starting with interoperability and security" in the forward to the ICT strategy on 30 March.
The strategy itself committed to "mandatory open standards" before explaining the mandating of "specific open standards" would awaken "local delivery chains".
The plant then made repeated assurances it would mandate numerous open standards. There would be a "common infrastructure based on open standards", a "suite of agreed, open standards" and "a first wave of compulsory open standards".
Gerry Gavigan, a standards expert and head of campaign group the Open Source Consortium, told the same conference meeting the Cabinet Office's first declaration for open standards, a Procurement Policy Note issued by the Office of Government Commerce in January, was good. But the Cabinet Office had since undermined the policy by watering down its definition of open standards.
Gavigan said the government should concentrate on its open standards and agile computing policies if its open source policy were to have any hope of working. The head of the Open Source Consortium said specific open source policies were a bad idea.