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By | Kelly Fiveash 25th September 2009 08:08

UK government ignoring own rules on open source

Where's a policeman when you need one?

Open source vendors are calling on the UK government to put its money where its mouth is and police its own rules on public sector open source software procurement - which were revised in February this year.

Some OSS makers argue that despite the first major overhaul to the government’s open source and open standards strategy in half a decade, UK.gov is failing to implement its policy.

“How many of us would obey the speed limit if there were no policemen, no laws and no speed cameras,” argued Alfresco’s president and CEO John Powell at a Red Hat-sponsored meeting in Westminster yesterday.

“In the UK you have a situation where there is no enforcement,” he said.

The government published its revised policy on 25 February. It brought in new measures to promote open standards and encourage the reuse of software.

Measures outlined in the strategy included an education programme, guidance on procurement from the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council, headed up by John Suffolk, and assessment of new products. It also aimed to spotlight open standards by ensuring systems were interoperable and avoided product lock-in.

However, many months after that overhaul and OSS vendors in the UK are complaining that a lack of enforcement effectively nullifies the policy, thereby making OSS and open standard procurements a rarity rather than the rule.

“Just police the document, it drives fit-for-purpose and value for money,” argued Ingres exec veep Steve Shine. “It doesn’t mandate open source... It very reasonably goes through and asks all the right questions about making sure the investments government makes can be reused.”

He described the policy as one of the best of its kind in Europe, but added that its lack of enforcement meant it was easy for system integrators to turn a blind eye to the strategy.

And it’s that “business as usual” attitude among SIs who are tied to big contracts with the Microsofts of this world that worry at least some CIOs within the public sector.

“We’ve been clobbered completely by vendor lock-in,” grumbled Islington Council’s CIO Jeremy Tuck at yesterday’s meeting.

He pointed out that under the government’s previous strategy, the procurement process was much more closely locked into proprietary software. Back then open source vendors had to prove their product could support some proprietary software used by individual government agencies.

And while CIOs in the public sector may have expected a step-change in policy when it comes to software procurement today, Tuck argued that there is "a gap" between the strategy and its implementation because no clear body exists to enforce it.

The policy - as stipulated in February by the then minister for digital engagement, Tom Watson MP - said the pace of the UK public sector adopting open source and open standard software needed to be speeded up.

“We consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that open source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT,” said Watson on publication of the UK.gov’s revised strategy.

The only challenge now, according to many gathered at yesterday’s meeting, is in convincing the government to run with the ball.

Seven months on and some (if not all) open source vendors see little evidence that the policy is having the kind of impact they might have expected because, they argue, no one is stepping forward and policing it. ®

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