Much has been made of the Government’s flagship Big Society policy, designed to foster a climate that empowers local people and communities, taking control away from politicians and giving it to people. Back in 2010, the Conservative Technology manifesto offered a bright future for those looking for a more diversified approach to IT investment in the public sector, shifting away from cumbersome proprietary software contracts and opening up the door to dynamic SMEs.
Central to the manifesto’s offering was a promise to “create a level playing field for open source IT by implementing open standards across government IT systems.” At long last it appeared the UK was finally about to transform its lukewarm approach to open source adoption, but halfway through this Coalition Government, has anything really changed?
In some respects, there can be no doubt that progress in terms of creating an equal playing field for assessing the benefits of open source has been made. A simple search of the Cabinet Office website reveals a detailed procurement toolkit including user guides, cost of ownership advice adoptions. This official information advisory is the first stage in legitimising open source alternatives as something acceptable and assessable to the public sector.
More recently, Tariq Rashid, lead architect at the Home Office, warned that the Government was missing opportunities around open source by dismissing the technology from the procurement process due to unfounded fears around security capability.
He said, “There is a fear in government that sometimes if we use open source, we’ve exposed ourselves and that isn’t the case. It enables innovation, it gives you flexibility to change.” Hearing the long perpetuated security myths around OS dismissed by such a senior figure in Government was reassuring, but the very fact these problems were acknowledged reminded everyone that unfounded reservations about open source technologies still persisted across Government.
At present, we must accept that the Government has made progress in some areas of its promise to achieve a level playing field, but so much more can be done to help transform this vision into a reality. The arguments for accelerating open source adoption aren’t just for to see the benefits of a diversified pool of IT solutions in the public sector, they are economic. The UK is suffering from a double dip recession, the economy is lurching from one crisis to the next and urgent action is needed to kick-start the small business sector to get things moving.
Whilst proprietary software solutions are often expensive, open source software is free. Yes, of course free software requires support, services and consultancy but these fees are incomparable to the eye-watering licence fees that have plagued public sector spending and embarrassed politicians for the last decade.
Likewise, the notion that open source is any less secure than traditional offerings can be refuted on the simple fact that many thousands of developers test, debug and update modules on a regular basis, meaning the software has been through the hands of many more independent experts.
There is also a political reason for the Government to accelerate its journey in the direction of open source implementation, as the underpinning philosophy of the OS community marries perfectly with that of the Big Society agenda. Whilst the Government preaches for a society where charities, volunteers and individuals come together for the greater good, does this vision not conjure up comparisons with the open source community where thousands of developers across the globe work together to create faster and more efficient software?
It’s clear that the Government is taking a step in the right direction when it comes to open source, as the groundwork has been prepared for a radical acceleration of adoption across the public sector. As a nation, we still lag miserably behind countries such as France and Germany, who are already making huge savings by using alternatives to proprietary software suites.
Ensuring a level playing field was not only a manifesto pledge, it mirrors the Government’s own flagship policy of the Big Society. The UK cannot afford to take a slow coach approach to open source adoption, we must embrace it to improve public services and reduce the deficit for the long-term.