Government must step up open source adoption

Public sector called to action

In a recent speech, shadow chancellor George Osborne gave an outline of his views on government IT strategy, and stressed his goal of "open source politics". "Let's get digital" was the message, and was supported by calls for self-regulation, equality of information and the democratisation of the internet.

Osborne's strongest argument was reserved for open source software - and its rightful place at the heart of government IT. He urged people to embrace the guilt-free advantages, and the immense financial savings. He was unequivocal in his delivery open source is a positive thing for government.

A political interest in open source is not new the Office of Government Commerce published its Open Source Software Policy in 2004, and the advice to the government has for some time been to consider open source options in IT procurement.

Since the OGC piece, trials in open source software have been undertaken by the e-government Unit, Ofwat, Powys Council, the MoD Academy and West Sussex County Council, among others. So if it is already happening, what is Osborne calling for, exactly? It seems he could simply be saying to the public sector, "get on with it". And that advice could be appropriate.

However, such ringing endorsement of open source software, even with a dossier of positive success stories to benchmark against, should come with some cautionary notes.

To start with, it must be understood that open source software is not licence free. The General Public Licence contains strict stipulations and the Open Source Initiative goes on to list 50 or so further licences - each with usage terms to obey.

Further, there are laws governing how governments procure, and procurement of technology, open source or otherwise, will be likely to be subject to procurement law if the relevant criteria are met.

In his speech Osborne seemed to suggest that the OGC should change procurement law to help promote the uptake of open source software. But as EU members we are governed by the Europe-wide Public Sector Procurement Directive, which would not allow a political bias away from licensed software.

Finally, there are important human implications in moving to new technologies. There could be a steep learning curve for users, and even back-office software needs to be understood, integrated and serviced. Introducing unfamiliar software would be a disruptive process.

Osborne's speech was welcome despite its simplifications. It is not a new argument, but its repetition was well timed. Open source procurement was a debate opened by the current administration, but not capitalised upon - or even progressed on significantly.

In the run-up to the next election, it is fair game for either side to push this forward we should indeed be getting on with it. So this was a call for action. The IT community will have to wait and see if policy follows.

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