A British government agency, whose mission is to help reduce the cost of government, is launching a series of nine IT "proof of concept" trial projects using open source software, including Linux.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) said the trials would be conducted across a diverse group of government offices. The aim is to see how open-source software compares to proprietary products and to learn where it can be used with comparable, or improved performance, and lower costs.

The first nine trials will be conducted with the help of IBM but other vendors will be invited to offer their ideas, said Martin Day, a spokesman for the OGC. The office was established in April 2000 to help UK government agencies get the best value for their money from vendors in everything from road building, to property management and IT, he said. "IT is a great way of losing money if you get it wrong," Day said.

For more than a year, the OGC has been working on open-source trials that would yield real-world results, he said. In July, the British government's Open Source Software Policy was announced in parliament, which wanted a level playing field for comparisons of open-source and proprietary software based on value for money.

The nine trials, which will take place during the next six months could be expanded to more projects. They are being coordinated by the Office of the eEnvoy, which is responsible for improving the online delivery of public services and cutting costs as well as making all UK government services available electronically by 2005.

"We're not out here to prove a point [about open-source vs. proprietary software]," Day said. "We have no specific religion [about either technology]," he added. "Is this about abandoning Microsoft products? No, it's not."

Instead, the idea is to find out if public money can be saved by looking at other ways of doing government business, he said.

Whatever the eventual findings, the OGC can't make the use of open-source software mandatory, Day said. The agency can only make recommendations, although the findings could hold some weight in future IT decisions.

"Whilst it's not mandatory, if (open-source software) works, it would take a very brave department to rubber-stamp another order [for proprietary software from any vendor]," he said. "We're going to want to see what these trials (show)."

The nine departments involved in the trials are: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; the Department for Work and Pensions; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Office of the eEnvoy; Powys County Council; Newham Borough Council; Orkney Council; the Central Scottish Police Authority; and the Office of Water Service.

Adam Jollans, Linux strategy manager at IBM's software group, said the pilots could help determine practical usage for Linux and other open-source software in government agencies, as well as provide measurable comparisons of costs and performance. "This parallels what we've been doing with a lot of our commercial customers," Jollans said.