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Whitehall dips toes into open source purchasing

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The government today announced the successful roll-out of an open source-based online purchasing system.

Called Purchase & Pay, the Linux-based system is used by civil servants in the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) for the purchase of printed forms and stationery. The government hopea to extend the role of the system to facilitate the payment of invoices resulting from orders to be added over the coming months.

IBM, who supplied the server hardware for the system, also acted as 'prime contractor' for Belmin, the SME supplier responsible for the implementation of EROS software, based on IBM's Informix U2 product, on a Linux platform. Cable & Wireless is providing the network infrastructure.

The system is being run through the Government's own Government Secure Intranet (GSI).

Purchase & Pay went live on February 3 and has now reached a 'steady state' with high user acceptance, according to the DWP. More than 80 per cent of DWP stationery buying is already being handled via the new online system.

The Office of Government Commerce OGC's trading arm, OGCbuying.solutions, is managing the system and was the prime mover in setting up the system for the DWP.

Welcoming the establishment of the Purchase & Pay system, Hugh Barrett, chief executive of OGCbuying.solutions, said: "Our decision to use Open Source software was based on its proven reliability, portability and lower licensing costs. Overall it represented best value for money in this application."

Coming from a senior civil servant, with real clout when it comes to defining IT systems, that's a ringing endorsement for open source. If this logic were applied to desktop OS and a wider range of apps software it would mark a major shift in government thinking.

Although some government sites run Apache, open source systems are very much the exception rather than the rule. This is the first major open source business software application roll out we're aware of, and judging from the Treasury's statement on the project, more might follow. However the wheels of government turn mighty slow, so don't expect any major changes on the ground anytime soon.

The experience gained from the evaluation of the new Purchase & Pay system will be taken into account as part of OGC's strategy to "support the development of fully interoperable 'cross-government' e-procurement systems", the Treasury states.

The wider strategy will eventually allow all public sector departments and agencies to share information on suppliers and pricing.

It's hoped online purchasing systems will allow public sector bodies to save money and reduce complexity by modernising Whitehall's approach to purchase and supply.

Martin Sykes, Executive Director of OGC's e.Commerce Directorate, who's responsible for developing the Government's e-procurement strategy, said: "This work will give us access to valuable experience in the operation of Open Source Software, whilst contributing to DWP's needs for improved efficiency and effectiveness." ®

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