OSS reports – UK's budget watchdog shows how – not?

A familiar tale - cost overrun results in underspecced outcome

Following our report last week of the Office of Government Commerce's difficulties at the Public Accounts Committee, our attention is drawn to what appears to have been a piece of not entirely joined-up purchasing by the OGC itself. The outfit is charged with helping government departments achieve the best possible value for money in their purchasing, so it'd be just a little bit embarrassing if it got it wrong itself.

If you look here, you'll find this document, a covering note to a QinetiQ report on the use of open source software. QinetiQ, formerly the MoD's DERA, but now privatised, has worked closely with the OGC on open source policy in the past.

The note is in itself interesting, in that it includes the terms of reference under which the report was initially commissioned, but explains: "Funding for the case study consultancy was limited. Given that limited funding, it would not have been possible for the study to address a large enough number of OSS implementations for any meaningful, statistically sound, conclusions to be drawn. OGC therefore decided at an early stage that one of the main deliverables from this study should be a documented methodology for approaching similar case studies in future."

So if we read that right, after QinetiQ was commissioned it transpired that the money it had been offered in order to do the job originally specified turned out not to be enough to do it, and therefore it did something else instead. Instead of "fully documented case studies plus a covering report documenting conclusions and recommendations", we get a methodology for conducting future case studies plus, yes, a couple of case studies. The work it has done in devising QOSSIModo, QinetiQ Analysis of Open Source Solution Implementation Methodologies, will no doubt stand QinetiQ in good stead when bidding for future OGC OSS analysis contracts. Provided, that is, the OGC can raise a bit more money than it could last time.

QinetiQ did not of course change the brief off its own bat - the OGC decided to do this "at an early stage." But presumably not quite early enough to make it to the original tender which QinetiQ had won, and two other bidding outfits had not. Nor does the OGC explain how the service commissioned turned out "at an early stage" not to be deliverable for the price originally negotiated (which we understand was a paltry £30,000). The traditional UK government IT specification process, whereby the original quote turns out to be wildly optimistic and shedloads more consequently has to be poured in, may be something the OGC has some passing familiarity with.

The report was commissioned in November 2002, and in late December Julie Briggs, co-author of the report, was soliciting subjects including "an Office automation roll-out, a Linux desktop roll-out and a database migration using PostgreSQL" on UK open source discussion boards, with interviews to take place in late January and early February. The report was actually published in February, which is possibly a little bit too soon for respondents to her appeal to have been processed, and therefore might suggest that the brief revision took place in early January. ®

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