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Number 10 shuts wallet on closed-source IT projects

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Government IT projects that don’t explore alternatives to closed and proprietary software are getting kicked back and denied funding.

The civil servant running open source, open standards and information management under No 10’s digital change agenda called such spending controls a “key gateway” in complying with new IT procurement rules.

Those new rules encourage re-use of technology, low-cost solutions and greater use of SME suppliers in the UK public sector's IT shopping catalogue G-Cloud - rather than simply renewing existing IT contracts from systems integrators who control the product code and the customer relationship.

And it’s the Cabinet Office, running G-Cloud, that is vetoing spending.

“They [the Cabinet Office] are not there to make friends, they can easily say: ‘That's rubbish, you haven’t looked at cloud or open source options, go back and look again',” Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid told the Open Gov Summit on Wednesday in London.

“We know not all senior leaders in the public sector get involved in ‘techie stuff.’ But when the projects they have worked on for two to three years hit a brick wall, that's a painful process.”

Asked by The Reg whether projects had already been kicked back, he replied “yes”. “The Home Office has experienced that challenge as an example,” he said.

He did not say which projects.

Former G-Cloud director Chris Chant had told The Reg in April that control over departments' spending might be one way to ensure greater use of G-Cloud. There is no mandate that specifies G-Cloud must be used for government IT.

Spot checks on departments’ consideration during procurement and their use of open source are also being evaluated. This is something Rashid admitted is not universally popular. Greater self-assessment is also being considered.

“Some [departments] go further and are benefiting from creating open source to share, consuming open source other colleagues have created and becoming centres of excellence. At the moment, that's how they self-assess. We will do more work around this,” Rashid said.

Rashid said the government does not have a target for use of open source, but simply wants to ensure open source is given a level playing field against closed code.

“We believe open source isn't properly considered when we are doing IT. Our objective is not to have a target for open source in government – a year on year increase. Our objective is to best explore the opportunities out there. Sometimes that might be open source. At the moment, we believe we are missing out on the opportunities.”

Open source, because the code’s open, means government can diversify its suppliers, potentially enjoying greater choice and lower prices.

Rashid reckoned those running government IT projects are still clinging to outdated ideas on open source, which is tipping the playing field against it. “If government makes it harder to work with open source, that's bad and means we have perhaps a bias to very expensive software and those who can buy it. Clearly that's not right.

“Open source is not a toy – I have to sometimes say this, because part of the problem we are trying to solve is the understanding and the familiarity of open source is not as great in the public sector,” he said.

Security is a big problem, with the lingering belief that open source code is at greater risk to attack than closed, proprietary software. The government has convinced the CESG, which sets security standards in government, to address this issue with a statement saying open source as a category is no more or less secure than closed proprietary software.

Rashid added that it’s vital open source is considered as an infrastructure choice, not merely an add-on, as this would influence how systems are developed and supported in future.

“If we as a public sector want to spend money effectively in 2012 it’s not good enough not to know what open source is... those of us in charge of foundational architectures must understand why open architecture that give you technological and commercial flexibility and choice down stream,” he said. ®

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