How will open standards change the future of government IT?

Are the government's open standards principles a blueprint for a radically new open IT architecture, or just another empty policy statement?

After a lengthy and often heated consultation, the government has finally released its new open standards principles intended to level the supplier playing field and avoid product lock-in. 

But is the document a blueprint for a radically new open IT architecture in government, or just another empty policy statement?

Even supporters of the policy expect further battles ahead.

“This announcement is very important and as such we can expect vigorous resistance from the incumbents. That is why the principles have been such a hard journey,” said Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge University.

Thompson has been closely involved in the creation of the principles, having authored a paper for Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in 2008 which set out the case for the creation of a level playing field for technology founded on progressive adoption of open standards.

More than open source

Thompson believes the ramifications for future government IT go far beyond the long-called for uptake of open-source software in the public sector. “The prize is much bigger than the use of more open source,” he said.

“This is about architectural redesign of public services. Right now we still live in a world of vertically integrated IT.” 

Departments have siloed, locked-down technology, whether in-house or under an outsourced model. This situation has led to the duplication of expensive proprietary systems across the public sector.

The proof of the pudding lies really in the implementation of the policy

Martin Kretschmer, director at the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management

“Open standards allow us to separate highly bespoke parts from the commodity bits. In the past organisations would strip everything out and chuck it over the wall to a systems integrator,” said Thompson.

“What we are working on at the moment is a platform approach to public services.” By ensuring that all future IT procurements are open and interoperable, government can cut costs through de-duplicating systems: “The savings will be in the billions,” he said.

But the point is not to create a Trojan horse for the likes of systems integrators to come in and build a new "horizontal platform" across government. “The platform itself is little more than a set of open standards of business logic," said Thompson.

Joe Dignan, public sector analyst at Ovum, said open systems could lead to more effective sharing of information across departments. 

“There is very little money in the public sector so it’s all about how it can do better using the big data already there and by having common operating platforms turning big data into a means of improving services," he said.

Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, is equally enthusiastic about what it will mean for future IT procurements.

“In the long term it will mean government IT will become more flexible. If it has programmes that use open standards, it will be able to pull them out easily and slot in a new one if it’s not working,” he said.

“I’m surprised at how strong these principles are in trying to break vendor lock-in through open standards. Government has considered the practice as well as the principles in detail, by realising the importance of training public servants [in IT procurement],” he added.

“What I’m really happy about is the strong definition [of open standards]. The key criteria for an open standard is that if you need to do something covered by a patent, it must be available without payments and restrictions. And that is the case here.”

Gerloff said it will be important the principles don’t get watered down: “We’ve seen in the past government has taken a long and winding road, with a habit of taking one step forward and two steps back. And I imagine proprietary vendors won’t like it, we’re hearing there is already a push-back happening behind the scenes. So it will be interesting to see how the Cabinet Office holds up.”

What proprietary vendors have to say

But so far proprietary vendors appear to have little to say about the principles, despite many predicting a backlash. The Business Software Alliance, the body representing the largest software suppliers, did not have any comment to make on the open standards policy.

Microsoft, meanwhile, said in a statement to Computer Weekly: “We respect the outcome of the Cabinet Office’s Open Standards Public Consultation. Microsoft believes in and supports open standards in our products and services and will continue to work in an open and collaborative manner on policies that take a balanced approach and encourage innovation, choice, and competition for all businesses.”

Rocky road ahead

However, one initial criticism of the open standards principles is that they apply only to central government IT procurements, when the vast majority of the public sector’s annual £16bn IT bill is spent at a local authority level.

Gerry Gavigan, president of the Open Source Consortium, is sceptical about how the principles will work in practice. “The exercise has met a political rather than a practical objective and it's unclear how the announcement drives change,” he said.

“The policy still only applies to central government departments, despite the Cabinet Office acknowledging that most public sector IT spend takes place elsewhere. And what if a central government department doesn't choose to implement the policy?”

Martin Kretschmer, director at the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management at Bournemouth University, co-authored a report commissioned by the Cabinet Office into the costs and benefits of introducing open standards. 

Kretschmer said the principles have the potential to break lock-in and improve interoperability and competition, but agreed the hard part will be in seeing them put into effect.

“The proof of the pudding lies really in the implementation of the policy. Breaking complex systems into discrete components which can then communicate with one another only through standardised interfaces, is easier said than done. Procurement will have to specify projects smartly so that a greater range of suppliers are willing to tender,” he said.

Cambridge University’s Thompson agreed: “The challenges include resistance from incumbents, education, and the role of the CIO, which will need to change, as will levels of technical awareness and the notion that technology is for techies and not the business,” he said.

And when it comes to educating procurement chiefs into a new way of working, the scale of the task should not be underestimated. Consequently the cost of the procurement process itself could increase both in terms of the expense of finding the people with the right skills, and the time it will take to make a proper business case rather than simply giving it to a third party to do, says Ovum's Dignan.

“It will need to be followed up by demonstrating it can work at scale, at something working at appropriate enterprise scale which can used as an example,” he said.

As a statement of intent the open standards principles should be applauded, as they signal a desire to break vendor lock-in for future procurement and the potential release of huge cost savings. It also aligns with recent moves from the Cabinet Office to halt new IT purchasing frameworks, as part of its broader IT procurement rethink. 

But the big savings are in the wider public sector, which has no obligation to see through the Whitehall-led principles in its IT procurement. And breaking the mould in the way the public sector buys IT is clearly no small task.

As such, open standards evangelists will need to see this as merely round one in a long fight for change.

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