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UK.gov coder defines open standards: 'A lot like porn'

If you can think of it, there's an open standard of it?

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TransferSummit As the government works on drawing up yet another definition for open standards, the man in charge of the Cabinet Office's team of IT coders is keen to talk about a future where all government tech is based on, well, open standards.

On the current definition of open standards, Mark O'Neill – who was speaking at the open source TransferSummit event in Oxford – said:

"It's a lot like pornography: you know it when you see it."

Mark O'Neill, who heads up the Cabinet Office skunkworks group, said a budget for the team's next phase of work had been signed off.

So far the skunkworks talent pool has cost £400,000.

Now O'Neill is keen to get venture capitalists to provide funding for future public sector projects.

He admitted that VCs aren't interested in investing in government projects because, they say, the market isn't open enough.

O'Neill said the recently launched e-petitions website created by his skunkworks team was an example of how government projects should operate in the future.

He added that the site has had 3.8 million visitors, 20 million page views, 16,000 petitions and 1.5 million signatures at a cost of £80,000 to the taxpayer.

"At peak it gets as much traffic as Directgov," he explained.

Last month, at launch, the site was marred by downtime. Despite that, O'Neill said the project has proved a success.

He said the open source code used for the e-petitions website would be released soon.

But the skunkworks team is a very small part of Big Government, and the fact that O'Neill is calling on private funding may leave his team's work open to criticism that it is just a Cabinet Office vanity project, bereft of government investment.

O'Neill, who is not shy of referring to taxpayers as "customers", said that the procurement process within government can be a bit like asking for a beef sandwich and then being given a cow.

He said few people talked to each other about government IT. "Everyone’s trapped in their own little silo," he added.

On finding cash for IT projects, O'Neill claimed that government needed "to change its relationship with the market. Procurement is not always the right answer. There are other ways of engaging the market."

He admitted that the Cabinet Office knows where the problems are, but said convincing people across government to change remained a huge challenge.

One member of the audience noted that the skunkworks team lacked money, faced vendor lock-in and was simply "tinkering at the edges" with its projects.

"We have a group of ministers who are willing to say ‘you know what, they’re having a laugh’. They're willing to challenge contracts and break them," claimed O'Neill. ®

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