Westminster’s open source epiphany

The UK’s public sector has to date trailed governments in the rest of Europe in terms of open source adoption. France, in particular, has been a vociferous advocate of open source software for years.

But all of a sudden, politicians of all allegiances want to get in on the open source act.

In January 2009, the Conservative party published a report proposing that open source software be given greater consideration for government IT projects.

“These proposals are not just about saving money,” shadow chancellor George Osborne said. “They are about modernising government, making the public sector more innovative and improving public services.”

Then, in February, the government followed with a series of remarkably similar recommendations. In his foreword to a government ‘action plan’ entitled ‘Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use’, minister for digital engagement Tom Watson MP sang proudly from the open source hymn sheet.

“Open Source has been one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades,” he said. “It has shown how giant corporations themselves, and governments, can become more innovative, agile and cost-effective by building on the fruits of community work.”

While the government has always considered open source software – 50% of government websites are based on the Apache web server system, for example – it is time, said Watson, to increase the pace.

Watson pledged that the government would develop ‘clear and open’ guidance to ensure that open source and proprietary software is considered equally, that government IT and procurement staff would be given training and education around the merits of open source and that software procurement contracts would include clauses that allow the government to reuse code across the entire public sector.

The plan was of course applauded by the open source community and while one or two raised security concerns (see below) proprietary software vendors knew better than to campaign against the zeitgeist.

But is the government only picking the parts of the open source agenda that suit it, i.e. the bits that save money? The ideology behind the movement argues that organisations work better out in the open. A commitment from either party to open government, not just open source software, would be rather more impressive.

The experts’ reaction

Steve Shine, head of worldwide operations for open source database vendor Ingres, sees the announcement as proof that a change in the economics of IT is under way

The pressure on public spending generally, and major IT projects specifically, is challenging the whole industry together to deliver the very best value for the taxpayer.

Looking at cost savings that have been achieved by companies and governments all over the world, it’s estimated that the UK government could reduce its annual IT bill by at least £600 million a year if more open source software was used as part of an effective procurement strategy. The government’s announcement is the final confirmation that there is a new economics of IT that is sweeping across both business and government.

Richard Kirk, European director for Fortify Software, says that public sector adoption of open source software represents a significant security risk

The UK government must be cautious in adopting open source. Attackers are now focusing on a different, more lucrative area within information technology: vulnerabilities in business applications that transact money, data and intellectual property that hackers – especially foreign governments – seek. The government should adopt a systematic approach to application risk and security, ensuring there’s a proper software security assurance (SSA) strategy in place. Open source communities and the companies that back them should show government officials they have their own SSA strategy.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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