I have read the Government ICT Strategy a few times now. As a user and keen advocate of free/libre open source software I hope that strategy is effective. As a local government employee I am, regrettably, sceptical.
Open Standards/Open Source
These terms are used throughout the document, including these actions:
- To create a level playing field for the use of innovative ICT solutions, the Government will publish a toolkit for procurers on best practice for evaluating the use of open source solutions
- To assist with the development of agile solutions using open source technology, the Government will establish an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel. These will aim to educate, promote and facilitate the technical and cultural change needed to increase the use of open source across government
- To enable delivery of interoperable and open ICT solutions so that they can be shared and reused, the Government will publish a reference architecture
- To allow for greater interoperability, openness and reuse of ICT solutions, the Government will establish a suite of agreed and mandatory open technical standards
It sounds like good stuff, but I’ve heard it before. Back in the government published their Open Source Software Policy document. From that document:
- UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.
- UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.
- UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.
It seemed to have little or no impact. For example, vendor lock-in, which is also mentioned in the new strategy, paragraph 36
… The adaptation of compulsory open standards will help avoid lengthy vendor lock-in….
Microsoft is a master at vendor lock-in. A powerful example this is the Home User Programme. It allows employees to buy a cheap copy of Microsoft Office so long as their employer has an Enterprise agreement. In 2010 the NHS terminated their Enterprise agreement. The knock on effect is that employees can no longer legally use Office purchased under the HUP license, as noted on the Microsoft NHS Resource Centre page.
Microsoft claim that it’s docx, xlsx etc formats are open. Those that follow Groklaw will understand that this is not so. My understanding is that even Microsoft Office is incapable of producing documents that strictly adhere to the OOXML standards. The standard is flawed and they incorporate elements that prevent them ever becoming truly open. Read more on the Groklaw ODF/OOXML Resource page.
ICT Projects and Providers
The strategy also talks about reducing waste on ICT projects. This is supposed to happen through
the application of lean and agile methodologies and promotion of
a public service economy based on open ICT markets with increased participation of SMEs, the voluntary and community sector, and other diverse providers….
Well, things will have to change then. ICT departments like to buy products that are supported by the supplier. They like to be able to pass the buck back to the supplier when things don’t work. The strategy does seem to recognise this;
Government has become over-reliant on external expertise from consultants, contractors and interim staff…. This is spot on. Want a new Sharepoint intranet? Better get in some consultants.
This is the final point I want to highlight. Action points 18 to 20:
- To improve the flexibility and reduce the cost of desktop solutions, the Government will publish a common desktop/device strategy with detailed implementation plans.
- To examine the benefits of delivering standardised desktop services using a cloud-based model, the Government will develop a desktop prototype for the cloud.
- To detail how services will shift to cloud-based technologies, the Government will publish a Cloud Computing Strategy with implementation plans
So, a standard desktop. Will it be Windows? If the standard office product is Microsoft Office then how can it be anything other than Windows? Last time I checked Microsoft didn’t do a version of Office for Linux. So will it be a product that supports ODF? That would widen the choice of products that support the format and, for example, Libre Office is cross platform.
Cloud based services. Really? We like to keep all of our data on our own servers. We cripple machines through the use of software to lock down all useful services, like wireless, like Bluetooth, like USB. So is the government going to produce and host it’s own cloud? That wouldn’t be cheap, and government is facing big budget cuts. Would we ever us Google Docs? (I think some US government bodies do.)
To summarise then, some promising plans, and I really hope that open source and standards prevail, but I really don’t think much will change.