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Cabinet Office shuns open-source in IT-tracking deal

Maude's dept applies locks to 'level playing field' gate

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The Cabinet Office and its IT underlings have exhaustively championed the need for more OSS across government since the ConDem Coalition was cobbled together in May 2010. Nonetheless Francis Maude's department has just snubbed open source players by awarding a contract to a proprietary software provider to help establish how much money the government spends on technology.

Readers need only cast their minds back to a damning report published by the public administration select committee (PASC) last month that lambasted over-reliance on big IT firms in Whitehall over many years.

The cross-party group of MPs, whose committee is chaired by Tory politico Bernard Jenkin, labelled the IT-buying culture in central government as an "obscene" waste of taxpayer money.

"According to some sources, the government pays between seven and 10 times more than the standard commercial rate for its work. However, the government does not collect the information needed to verify these claims," said Jenkin in the report titled Government and IT – a recipe for rip-offs: time for a new approach.

Unsurprisingly then, the Cabinet Office recently sought expressions of interest from providers capable of providing an ICT asset and services knowledgebase which could, among other things, help the department pinpoint how to reduce tech costs and reuse existing systems where possible.

Given the lack of such an essential what-we-spend-on-IT database within Whitehall, many people will doubtless consider it a very good thing indeed that the Cabinet Office has been looking for a contractor to solve this problem.

But despite all the open-source rhetoric, openistas including Red Hat, Alfresco and Sirius Corp were shunned by the Cabinet Office after a pilot – set up using OSS components – was overlooked on 5 August in favour of a proprietary system.

CDS, which says on its website that its asset management product is "mandated for use across government", won the contract.

The Leeds-based company, owned by the Baird Group, is expected to deliver a "first phase" of the asset management product by September this year.

"The total cost of the solution, including accreditation, should be no more than £100k, over a three-year period," noted the Cabinet Office in its tender document.

A 2011/2012 budget of between £30,000 and £40,000 has been set aside, it said.

But some are perplexed by the Cabinet Office's business-as-usual treatment of open source players that had worked on the pilot.

Critics would argue that Maude's department has changed its tune. The minister had this to say, for example, in November last year:

"There are competitive processes, but actually the way we do procurement is often excluding smaller suppliers from the process.

"Very costly, very over-engineered and it isn't the open competition that we want to see that really does drive value and drives innovation."

Similarly, the government's deputy chief information officer Bill McCluggage previously told suppliers that more open source technology should feature in Whitehall's ICT strategy.

He met with OSS suppliers in February this year when he pointed out the Cabinet Office wanted to see an increase of open source tech deployment across government departments.

McCluggage said that a number of requirements would be expected from future IT procurements including an evaluation of open source products in any new proposal.

He also called on open standards and interoperability as key components in IT systems.

Finally, McCluggage said he wanted the use of open source software within government to become normal practice. Notably, those plans had simply built on a pre-election Tory pledge that stated it wanted to "create a level playing field" for OSS within Whitehall.

El Reg asked the Cabinet Office to explain why CDS won the contract over open source outfits whose reps had been present at the department's supplier briefing on 29 June this year.

“Government policy is to procure open source solutions where appropriate and to ensure there is a level playing field for open source. Open source solutions can compete for all relevant contracts – however the Cabinet Office still must make the best decision for the taxpayer," said a spokesman at the department.

"The winning bid was assessed as providing value for money. It was comprehensive and scored highest when compared with the other bids on the basis of its ability to fulfil the functional requirements."

He added: "Unsuccessful bidders will be given full and frank feedback on their bids.”

But Sirius Corp CEO Mark Taylor expressed disappointment with the decision.

"How can you preach 'Openness' and 'New Suppliers to Government' while simultaneously locking yourself even further into Closed and Proprietary with the same old suppliers to government?," asked Taylor, who was recently appointed by the Cabinet Office to lead its New Suppliers to Government working group.

"Either Cabinet Office are leading the change, as they claim they will, or they are entrenching the same old practice, which is what they seem to be doing." ®

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