The Cabinet Office seems to have got its PR strategy all wrong. The period leading up to the launch of the iPad would have been a perfect day to have buried bad news #169;Jo Moore but the new ICT strategy seems to be something to celebrate: a move that saves money, cuts carbon emissions, sets out a cloud computing policy and offers more to the open source community should be trumpeted loud and clear on a day free from any other distractions.
Yet all is not what it seems. The open source community is not impressed with the document at all and it's not hard to see why. The document itself states that it does not "does not represent a wholesale change to the Open Source Open Standards Reuse Strategy published in February 2009" and as I pointed out in a blog a couple of weeks ago, there has been very little action on the open source front since this procurement policy was established.
And nothing really has changed. What seems to have happened is that the Cabinet Office has said that instead of getting cross if open source is not considered, it will get really, really cross. It rather reminds me of King Lear impotently raging against his daughters when they hold all the cards, "I shall do such things ... what they are I know not, but they shall be the terror of the earth".
The trouble is, as Al Fresco's John Powell points out, the Cabinet Office is as impotent as Lear - it sets guidelines but there's no requirement for any government department to follow them. And, as Ingres' Steve Shine points out, even if it did, there's no authority to enforce the strategy.
There are several questions here: firstly does it matter if a few open source companies are discomforted by the procurement policy? Companies are always whingeing if they're excluded from lucrative contracts, the open source companies aren't the only ones missing out.
I think it does. Not because I'm an open source fanatic but because it makes sense to consider government suppliers from a wide a circle as possible. As Al Fresco's Powell points out, there's a vicious circle involved here: open source companies are considered too small and inexperienced to get onto the catalogue of approved suppliers but when tenders are considered, procurement agencies only look at companies on the catalogue. It also makes sense to consider open standards - something that the Cabinet procurement policy specifically calls for. And of course, cost is a factor - open source products are generally (but not always) going to be cheaper than proprietary ones, even after taking into account the cost of migration.
So, if we accept that public procurement should be more loaded in favour of open source software, what can be done about it? Should we adopt a policy like Hungary's where 20 percent of public procurement has to be open source? (although the open source community in Hungary is not entirely convinced it should be a poster-boy for European open source adoption) Should we adopt a policy like the Netherlands where open source has to be adopted, all other factors being equal? Or should it like France where there's no set policy but open source has taken off to such an extent that 96 percent of public sector bodies are now using it.
One factor that affects the UK that doesn't appear to affect other countries in Europe is the links to the vendors. One thing that all open source companies agree on is that the large proprietary software vendors are far too closely linked with the civil servants - particularly since Labour came into power, says Alfresco's Powell.
Which leads us to the final question: why now? Powell believes that with the Conservatives having strong policies on open source within the procurement process, the Labour government has to be seen to be doing something - even if it's toothless. Perhaps it wasn't such a bad day to release the news after all.
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