Is the tide beginning to swing towards open source in government. There’s nothing really big suggesting that the mood is changing but there are small, imperceptible movements - rather like tiny shifts in the tectonic plates herald an earthquake.

Yesterday, it was the news that Bristol was to consider a move towards a further implementation of open source, following its implementation of Open Office a couple of years ago. Although it hasn’t yet been implemented, there is a political will to go with the technical desire too. Then we have the call by the government’s deputy Chief Information Officer for more government contracts to go to small businesses.

However, there is a mixed message here. McCluggage has also said that the case for open source has not yet been proved. - even against a background of projected government spending cuts.

Perhaps the most interesting manifestation of the sense of change is in the Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings paper written by Tory councillor Liam Maxwell with the aid of some noted IT commentators including Simon Wardley, Jerry Fishenden and William Heath.The theme of the piece is that the government is spending too much on IT services and details some of the abuses.

While this is not an official government document, the fact that’s been written by a Conservative with extensive experience in IT and with some form in this area - Maxwell had previously written a report for think-tank The Centre for Policy Studies placing him near the heart of Conservative thinking. That’s not to say that anything emerging from the CPS is going to find its way to government policy, but you can bet that Maxwell’s thinking is being noticed higher up the political food chain.

The lastest report is fascinating reading, not least for the way in which it details the levels of over-spending by the last Labour government -not surprisingly it's attracted some attention from Conservative blog, Conservative Home.

It doesn’t pull any punches. It calls for open source on the desktop through the introduction of Open Document Format in all third party applications (which it claims would produce savings of around £51million per year in local government, £200 million per year in central government). It also highlights the high cost of government computing, pointing out that PC support costs three times as much within central government as it does in local government.

It also calls for “Software framework agreements that perpetuate vendor lock-in, particularly those offered by Microsoft or Oracle, should be rejected and new models sought. Government is such a large collective customer it is difficult to understand why the UK has found itself in such a position “

Now, we get to the heart of the matter. Government spending on IT seems to turn economic theory on its head, where a large customer gets a worse deal. Supermarkets have got an economic stranglehold over farmers because they represent such a powerful lobby, hence they have a way to force prices down. Even software vendors such as Microsoft have shown themselves perfectly willing to cut licensing deals to win business - if, and only if, they’re in a competitive situation.

The paper goes on to call for smaller and simpler IT projects, using incremental stages so that project managers can keep closer tabs on the way that progression is being made; shorter lock-ins to contracts with, echoing McClugagge’s call, access to a wider range of suppliers, including SMEs. Most of all it calls for open standards and open data - the two go hand in hand.

Better for Less isn’t perfect: for some reason it highlights Apple as an example of a vendor to follow - even though Apple is the enemy of open standards - and it’s a bit harsh blaming everything on the Labour government. Previous Conservative administrations have been just as careless in keeping tabs on large projects and have been enthusiastic wooers of large American software companies.

But it’s correct that the Labour government gets it in the neck. After all, this is in administration that has had the advantage of being in power during the age of the Internet and doing very little to bring the web to the heart of the way that we citizens run our lives.

To go back to the original question: is the tide turning for open source? There are certainly plenty of barriers. There’s certainly a resistance from civil servants to change - and it’s certainly the case that systems based around proprietary software cannot be removed overnight, even in Bristol, seen as a poster boy for open source admits that.

Better for Less calls for more openness throughout - something that many Conservative politicians have problems with - the Conservative-run council where I live is hounding a Green councillor for the heinous crime of including video clips of council meetings on his website. I suspect that many Conservative politicians of the mindset that public data should be kept away from the unwashed masses but it’s an attitude that needs to be shed.

And this is the crux of the matter. If we were talking about greenfield sites, the technical case for open source would be a simple one - I can’t see anyone (bar the marketing departments of Microsoft and Oracle) saying that the answer is more expensive, proprietary software. We're not talking about greenfield sites however, but well-established organisations with many millions of pounds of software commitments and well established IT systems. The cost of that change has to be factored in. And, even taking that into account, this is not just about technical issues - this is whether there’s a buy-in from the relevant people in power: politicians, civil servants and CIOs. We reported earlier this week about how the government of the Swiss state of Solothurn had gone back on its decision to implement Linux and had returned once again to Windows, a decision seemingly prompted by the lack of buy-in for the operating system from government employees - a stark reminder of the need to get all elements of an organisation pulling in the same direction.

Given the imperative to cut public sector spending, however, I can certainly see that organisations are going to give much more serious consideration to open source. The signs mentioned above are indications that the grounds are shifting a bit. The debate has started but there’s still a long way to go.

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