Government open standards proposal fails the 'so what?' test

The consultation on open standards in government IT is generating a lot of discussion, much of which misses an important point: so what?

"Who - whom?" Lenin's aphorism explaining the whole of Marxism in two words is a useful lens through which to view large proprietary IT companies, the public sector and everyone else.

As most of us know there is a consultation on open standards in government IT and it's generating a lot of discussion

I'm not surprised to read that Microsoft has visited Cabinet Office officials a few times to press the case for its world view. Nor am I surprised to read that like-minded others have been attending meetings to explain that the sky would be in danger of falling in, if anything along the lines of the consultation proposals for royalty-free open standards are implemented.

That's what any profit-maximising enterprise worried about their preferred business model should be doing. A good way to remain a rent-seeking eleventy-billion-dollar corporation is to spend a small amount of that eleventy billion dollars on public relations. 

The rest of us, not so able to fund access, have more difficulty getting heard. Accordingly, the Cabinet Office was strangely inept in failing to ensure its “round table” wasn't a little more diverse.

But what is actually in question?

In advance of our full response to the consultation, I am grateful for the opportunity to publicly explore the definition that is sending a chill down the spine of the IT oligopoly, as the government has called the dominance of big IT suppliers:

"Government bodies must consider open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats and in procurement specifications should require solutions that comply with open standards, unless there are clear, documented business reasons why this is inappropriate."

It is not clear what is a “government body”. The absence of clarity is apparent when compared to the definition of public bodies in Section 1(4) Equalities Act 2010.

Nevertheless, the statement is qualified in two ways: "consider" unless "inappropriate". 

I've seen better drivers for change. 

A “clear, documented business reason” for not using an open standard could arise from a failure to have used an open standard in the past, in which case the costs of reversing that decision might be greater than continuing with it. 

Once locked-in is always locked-in, and the policy has no effect. 

Again, I find myself wondering about the Cabinet Office. It is a cross-Whitehall department with a remit to look at the whole picture, but there do not appear to be any plans to look at the effects of a decision by one government body on the rest of the public sector IT estate.

However, the real problem with the consultation is that the proposals fail the “so what?” test:

  • So what if the definition is adopted?
  • So what if every government body has “a clear, documented business reason” for not considering an open standard?
  • So what if they haven't, but still don't?

This is more important than whether the policy promotes adoption of open source or open standards. 

Failure to promote royalty-free open standards for software in the public sector has wide consequences:

  • The public sector is less able to reduce its dependence on a small group of suppliers.
  • Users of online public services are more constrained in their choice of software.
  • Users of online public services become locked in to a small group of suppliers.
  • Online public services constrain innovation and growth in the knowledge economy.

If you don't like Lenin then consider instead the phrase popularised in the film All the President's Men about the journalists who uncovered Watergate: “Follow the money”

Gerry Gavigan is chairman of the Open Source Consortium, which has published a report which explores these issues in depth. On 30 April Policy Exchange is holding an event exploring the issues. And, yes, Microsoft will be speaking.    

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