Tories plan open door for open source

Right place, right time

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A Tory strategy to make more use of open source software in the public sector is likely to tackle the culture of secrecy in government procurement, according to early details released to The Register.

Planned for publication next month and stemming from shadow chancellor George Osborne's adoption of a West Coast attitude, the plans are also likely to encourage the adoption of open standards and promote an indigenous open source industry.

Mark Thompson, a Cambridge University IT lecturer and businessman who is drawing up Osborne's request to make Britain the "open source leader of Europe", said that procurement - including the notoriously secretive gateway process - might be opened up so that it was easier for smaller firms to pay homage to the public purse.

These ideas have created some excitement in the apolitical open source movement (the flossers). Those who spoke to The Register about the Tory promise found it necessary to say the same six words: "I am not a Tory, but...".

The "but" for Thompson, like his peers, is that the current government's attitude to IT - "strong corporate ties, centrist, big systems integrators, the way business is done" - has kept the flossers out in the wilderness.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, think their open market philosophy can be tied up with the open source model and the principle of open government in one great big plan to revitalise the British software industry, society, and politics.

One implication of this plan could be similar to that hoped of open source in Africa: develop an indigenous software industry and avoid sending too much public money to Redmond. It's thoroughly Conservative: free the market from the yoke of monopoly power and reward local entrepreneurs.

"The current administration being pretty much a Microsoft shop, from the PM down, it's about time someone did something," said Thompson in an unguarded moment.

You will not hear much talk like this from here on in. The closer the flossers get to Tory power, the more they dampen their criticism of Microsoft. This is not about Microsoft, it's not anti-Microsoft. Microsoft has given the world some great software, they now say, but there's no denying the fact that the four-paned devil could have its vista sullied if these plans bear fruit.

Much of the trouble the flossers have with the government stems from their alarm over the big deals it has done with Microsoft. But, there is bigger game, which is the culture of secrecy in public sector procurement that has flourished behind the "commercial in confidence" defence. The Tory plan will work on the premise that secrecy hides bad decision making, protects vested interests, locks small, innovative firms out of government business, and could be one reason why the government has such a bad reputation for IT.

This will not result in a big bang switch-over from big business to cottage industries of flossers, said Thompson. There will be no diktats antithetical to the movement. There will likely be no radical government intervention at all, but rather, by opening procurement and publishing the architectural and interface standards of government systems, "extending the market" beyond its present cloister of big business.

The irony is that the foundation for the flossers has been laid under Labour - not necessarily by Labour, though its e-government drive has been crucial. Until now, Britain might not have been ready for open source. The procurement culture was haunted by the idea of public budgets being frittered away on fly-by-night vapourware merchants with their heads in the clouds. Perhaps, from the near-sighted left, it looks as though there is little to distinguish the flossers from the Tories anyway. ®

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