Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/18/open_source_uk_government_what_next/

FOSS vendors lick chops over ConLib IT plans

'OpenOffice can save UK from doing a Greece'

By Kelly Fiveash

Posted in Software, 18th May 2010 11:02 GMT

Analysis In the run-up to the General Election both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats made positive noises about open source software in their respective manifestos.

But now that a coalition government has been formed out of those blue and yellow political camps, will both parties actually stick to the Tories’ pledge of making UK.gov IT procurement more equal for open source, and how different are their commitments to the ones made by the previous Labour administration?

In many ways, the Conservative party’s manifesto echoed certain aspects of Labour’s open source and open standards policy for the public sector, which was tweaked in January this year.

It spoke about creating a more “level playing field” for open source technology in government, and the Tories promised something very similar in their manifesto. They also said they would open up the British government’s IT contracts to small and medium-sized businesses by dividing large technology projects into smaller chunks.

Perhaps more importantly, the Tories said they would immediately halt planned IT procurement projects to assess proposals and “ensure that small businesses and open source IT providers are not locked out of the bidding process”.

The LibDems, meanwhile, committed just one line in their manifesto to the cause.

They called on “better IT procurement, investigating the potential of different approaches such as cloud computing and open source software” in their pre-election pledge.

Of course both the Tories and the LibDems currenty face an overwhelming problem with a multi-billion pound deficit. So is the pledge to support open source software procurement - that might just help drive down some costs - a happy coincidence for the Camelegg jamboree?

"With the current coalition exploring a rather unchartered territory [sic] of power sharing and common interests, it will be interesting to see what change the new Cabinet will bring to the UK public IT policy,” Ingres global ops veep Steve Shine told The Register following the coalition's formation.

But differences of opinion within that alliance over open source software - no matter how minor - may yet affect Tory IT procurement promises made before the coalition took office in Whitehall.

But will it be Google or open source vendors wot won it?

“Both parties' technology manifestos have differed in terms of the degree of implementing the 'level playing field' for both open source and proprietary vendors. Whilst they have both acknowledged the contribution towards public savings that can be brought about by the increased use of open source software, only the Conservatives actually outlined some practical steps towards opening up the public procurement process,” said Shine.

“For example, one such proposed measure would be the public availability of tender documents, which would enable smaller open source companies to bid for public IT contracts. In effect, such simple policies would be the key for public IT systems to gradually break free from proprietary vendor lock-in and consequently save a substantial amount of taxpayers' money."

However, reaching a consensus within the ConLib love-in could yet prove to be a stumbling block, especially given that Nick Clegg’s party didn’t go into the kind of detail that the Tories did in their manifesto about what money should be spent, or indeed held back, on IT projects under the new administration.

In reality, UK.gov probably won’t be unpicking IT policies left in place by the previous government all that much. Instead it will be trying to deliver on some of the promises already pledged in January’s open source policy tweakage, which according to the Sirius Corporation’s Mark Taylor “looked great on paper” but lacked any real commitment for the former government to get the job done.

“It is my opinion that the new government has a genuine and sincere interest in open source and this will now be reflected in both policy and action,” Taylor told El Reg.

“We do not even need to posit that there is ideological buy-in for this. The reality of the situation is that with a pressing need to cut the £163bn deficit, and central government ICT spending exceeding £14.5bn per annum, there is a compelling case to slash waste in the ICT area and open source fits the bill,” he said.

Taylor labelled the previous government's IT spending record as being "absurdly wasteful" thereby leaving an "easy win" for the new administration to make cuts and save money for the British taxpayer.

"I expect to see the new government to push strongly for the three opens - 'open data', 'open standards' and 'open source' - and in this order," opined Taylor. "Councils like Windsor and Maidenhead are already putting details of all spending online and in searchable form, this will spread."

But it's not going to be an entirely easy process to bring more open source software into government, admitted Taylor.

"I know that one of the blockers for the spread of open source, and especially projects like Open Office on the desktop, is the huge number of existing public sector applications locked into proprietary office formats.

"Pushing for, or even insisting on, open standards in this area will open up competition and bring down costs, not to mention paving the way for much wider adoption of Open Office in the UK."

An optimistic Taylor is also convinced that the new government will stick to its promise to reduce the size of IT projects, making it easier for smaller software vendors to compete for contracts.

That's not to say that Microsoft, which has recently been defensive about its relevance in government IT procurement, will necessarily be an high-profile victim of deep cost cuts in Whitehall.

At the same time he expects the David Cameron-led UK.gov to "outsource some fairly hefty chunks of IT" that could ironically open the door for the likes of Google, which is of course a tech multinational that the Tories had a cosy pre-election relationship with. And presumably that particular love-in hasn't changed now that Cameron occupies Number 10. ®