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UK Gov open source policy gets an upgrade

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The UK's e-Government Unit, formerly the Office of the e-Envoy, has finally published the long-awaited update to its policy on open source software in government. But if it didn't have version 2 and today's date on the cover, you might have difficulty spotting it.

The new policy says first, "UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis", which is what the last one said. Then it says: "UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments." Which again is exactly what the last one said. And so it goes on through "UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services" and "UK Government will consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money" to the fifth and last point, which previously said the Government would explore further the possibilities of the use of OSS as the "default exploitation route for Government funded R&D software", but has now been updated.

Whew. The policy now reads "Publicly funded R&D projects which aim to produce software outputs shall specify a proposed software exploitation route at the start of the project. At the completion of the project, the software shall be exploited either commercially or within an academic community or as OSS." And there's a footnote to this specifying that this policy won't apply in the areas of defence, national security or law enforcement, or to "software developed by Trading Funds."

There's a story behind the change, and the length of time it took to make it. The Register's sources indicate that the Office of the e-Envoy's consultations over this reached a climax of acrimony and bloodshed over a year ago, as warring camps vied over rival licensing models. What we have now might to taken to indicate that the policymakers have deemed it prudent to step back from the cowpat of overtly recommending any specific licence, which is sensible.

In the "Next Steps" section (which is the more important part of the document), it says "DTI, eGU and JISC will disseminate information on the distinct types of OSI compliant licenses to support use, development and exploitation of OSS by government organisations and publicly funded R&D teams", so depending on what this information consists of, there may still be recommendations regarding licence models to use. It also commits to publicising and pushing the R&D policy, and says that: "DTI Research Councils and JISC will explore the feasibility of providing unified access to publicly funded R&D OSS", which while not entirely clear suggests some form of central resource is envisaged.

Other action points cover the use of open source in the public sector. This, considering the probability that it's been the R&D exploitation aspect that's been holding things up, might have been more usefully be viewed as a separate issue by government. But here it is with the R&D anyway. The "issues involved in supporting the information assurance requirements of OSS for use in government systems" will be examined, and the OGC will "disseminate the lessons" of its proof of concept trials (link below) while the e-Government Unit (which we see has decided to call itself eGU), "will explore with Government, industry and other stakeholders further activities to support OSS use in the public sector."

So we're not necessarily doing something, but we're exploring to find the some somethings we can do. It's forward motion of a sort. The new policy has passed muster with the Institute for Software Choice, which numbers Microsoft among its backers and is generally ready to leap on any sign of government evangelisation of open source. But The Register finds its European director, Hugo Lueders, a reasonable and engaging cove anyway.

According to Lueders: "Existing commitments regarding neutrality in the public procurement of software have been bolstered by this new provision [the extension of neutrality into the exploitation of publicly-funded R&D] which, among other things, requires researchers to define the exploitation route for publicly funded software research before they start. From now on, rather than obliging researchers to distribute the results of research under an open source license where no mode of exploitation is specified, the UK’s policy maintains neutrality as regards all development models."

This, we should point out is an obligation that might have happened, rather than one that had been specified in policy version 1. But close enough, Hugo, all friends for the moment, right? ®

New policy document

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