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How can UK.gov spend £35m on a website?

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Comment The Central Office of Information (COI), the UK Government's centre of excellence for marketing and communications, has just published a report on the costs, usability and quality of selected UK Government websites in 2009-10.

It's a detailed report and the data is available to download. It shows how the UK Government spent £94m on website development and running costs plus £32m on web staff in 2009 - 2010. By looking at the analytics it's possible to correlate the costs of building these sites with the number of visitors. One headline statistic was that the UK Trade and Investment website averaged 28,000 users per month but cost over £4m to build - so each site visitor cost £11.78.

As an exercise, I took a deeper look at the websites in the COI report to see what technology they're using. These are leading central government websites so it's an interesting sample.

I wanted to characterise the sites from the information available on the Internet - were they built using Microsoft technology as evidenced by IIS web server, ASP.NET framework and Windows Server? Or were they Open Source based, with Linux OS and Apache web server for example?

In the end I extracted data for 38 of the websites, and found 25 were using Microsoft and 13 were Open Source. The majority of the Microsoft sites were running Windows Server 2003, with one instance each of 2000 and 2008.

That in itself bucks a global trend, in that over 60 per cent of all websites are based on Apache whereas IIS 5, 6 and 7 account for one per cent, 20 per cent and three per cent respectively. Microsoft and its partners have clearly had a strong influence over UK Government procurement decisions.

How much evidence was there of content management systems (CMS) usage? Very little. There was a small pocket of Vignette CMS (now owned by Open Text), some Drupal and Joomla, and one instance of Microsoft SharePoint 2007. There was a weak correlation between the age of the site and use of CMS - it's more common in recently published websites.

Were the Microsoft based websites more expensive than the Open Source based ones? I ran a non-parametric statistical test (Mann-Whitney) on the two samples and the short answer is that there's no significant difference. This shows that the overall costs of building these sites out-stripped the licensing costs.

Do these sites seem like good value for the UK taxpayer? At an average non-staff cost of £2.5m per website, absolutely not. I read the report many times to understand how HM Revenue and Customs could spend £35m on www.businesslink.gov.uk. I just can't figure out how.

What's the lesson? The licensing model of the underlying technology isn't a significant factor in determining website costs. Free and Open Source Software won't matter when a consultancy or outsourcing company loads up a contract with tasks requiring many person weeks of expensive billable time.

If there isn't a FOSS advantage, there's still clearly a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) advantage. One of the main purposes of these sites (apart from serving static information pages) is to provide a portal for file download.

Disclaimer

Commercial open source software packages such as CogniDox allow you to do this in a completely secure and flexible manner. It costs thousands of pounds, not millions, and it delivers those features out of the box. And it has competitors such as Alfresco and Nuxeo that can also do the same.

Paul Walsh is the CEO of Cognidox, a Cambridge, UK developer of web-based document management software

This article was originally posted at Cognidox.

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