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UK.gov works on YET ANOTHER open-source push

Home Office battles internal 'communism' beliefs

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TransferSummit Yet another government definition for the term "open standards" is incoming because the Home Office isn't satisfied with the current wording of its so-called Action Plan.

The department's IT wonk Tariq Rashid confirmed at an open source forum in Oxford yesterday that the government had been "lobbying against" the current definition for open standards, and added that a new version was set to be published by the end of 2011.

At the TransferSummit event he spoke about how a policy to encourage open source, open standards and re-use of software across central and local government had been mulled over since 2004 without any real action kicking in. And that's despite several redrafts.

An optimistic Rashid, arguably just like his predecessors, is convinced that that attitude is finally changing.

"There seems to be a different feel and there's a lot of interest from politicians," he said.

But Rashid admits that changing the culture in Whitehall and beyond remains a huge challenge and even used a somewhat misplaced anecdote to demonstrate the level of feeling that remains in some gov quarters against the adoption of open source software.

"We're finding these barriers. Security people are saying 'You can't do that'. Others are saying 'Don't go there'. Our procurement people are saying 'what is this stuff? You can't buy it, it's communist'," he said.

Rashid is hoping to bust the myths he believes are still in place when it comes to bringing open source software into public sector IT systems.

"I’ve had crazy people say to me that using open source will create barriers to SME," he said, by way of an example.

But it remains unclear how the government will move on from the same rhetoric used by the Coalition and New Labour that only ever seems to speak of action, a plan, or indeed an action plan to make open source procurement a reality.

Rashid said that within the next year, all gov departments would have a mandatory requirement to demonstrate they had fairly evaluated an open source vendor for any new software procurement.

However, when asked by The Register how the Home Office planned to police such an effort, he was less clear.

Departments will be asked to fill out paperwork that proves that open source software was evaluated alongside proprietary software as part of the government's commitment to "a level playing field".

But if a contract win isn't awarded to an open source vendor, Rashid couldn't explain how such a decision could be overruled. Arguably, part of the problem with the lack of OSS adoption is that the government's own IT people often struggle to find a compelling enough reason to ditch a proprietary product for an open source equivalent.

That's a fact openly admitted by Rashid. He said open source software still failed to get the "appropriate consideration" when buying decisions are made.

"The only contact civil servants have with the outside world seems to be with traditional companies and we need to redress that balance a bit," he said.

He said one of the "myths" around open source software is that such products are "less secure" than proprietary programs and applications. In the past, OSS vendors have been dis-qualified from procurement bids based on that misleading criteria.

That's a perception that will no longer be tolerated by the government, he claimed.

"There’s a greater emphasis on action to make the IT strategy happen," he said.

Meanwhile, it's been tirelessly argued that government procurements continue to show scant regard for open source software.

As we were first to report last month, the Cabinet Office recently shunned an OSS vendor in favour of a proprietary outfit to provide an asset-tracking system to help the government nail exactly how much money it spends on IT.

But various open source players were invited to bid for that particular contract.

This may now be the new reality for OSS vendors. The government will grant them a seat at the table, but they still need to prove they have the goods if they want to stay in the game. ®

Stuckonrepeatnote

Then Cabinet Office minister and Labour MP Angela Smith had this to say at one such "action plan" redraft in January 2010:

“But over the past few years, the people have begun to fight back. Individuals, working together over the internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations. The age of Open Source is dawning and government has embraced it, becoming more innovative, agile and cost-effective.”

That plan made it clear that suppliers would be required to provide evidence that open source-based technology had been considered during procurement.

Bidders who do not provide proof could be disqualified from the procurement, it was declared.

Sound familiar?

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