The UK government has rejigged its open source and open standards software procurement policy, following pressure from OSS vendors last autumn.
Early last year the Cabinet Office revised its rules on public sector open source software purchases, but many OSS players complained that the policy amendments didn’t go far enough.
Others grumbled that the government was failing to police its own rules.
The government published the latest revision to its policy (PDF) today, after it brought in new measures to promote open standards and encourage the reuse of software on 25 February 2009.
Measures outlined in the strategy - which took five years to be overhauled - 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.
Come last September, some OSS vendors - including Ingres, Red Hat and Alfresco - complained that a lack of enforcement effectively nullified the government’s own rules, thereby making OSS and open standard procurements a rarity rather than the rule. The government hopes that today’s rejig of the “action plan” addresses some of those grumbles.
Cabinet Office minister Angela Smith penned a foreword to the revised paper, which appears to openly attack multinational software makers such as Microsoft and Oracle.
“When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, he fought to keep it free for everyone. Since then, not everyone in ICT has displayed quite the same philanthropic spirit and a small number of global organisations dominate,” she said.
“But over the past few years, the people have begun to fight back. Individuals, working together over the internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations. The age of Open Source is dawning and Government has embraced it, becoming more innovative, agile and cost-effective.”
The Cabinet Office said that the amendments to the policy didn't represent a "wholesale change" to its February 2009 rules.
Everything changes but you
However, it has tried to pin down suppliers by requiring them to provide evidence that open source-based technology had been considered during procurement.
Bidders who do not provide proof could be disqualified from the procurement, said the government.
In addition, the policy requires that where a "perpetual licence" has been bought from a proprietary supplier that gives the appearance of zero cost to that project, procurement teams will need to apply a "shadow" licence price to ensure a fair price comparison of total cost of ownership.
The government said today that it expected all software licences to be bought "on the basis of reuse across the public sector, regardless of the service environment it is operating within."
In other words, when the Cabinet Office launches the Government Cloud, the public sector won't foot additional bills for shifting licences skyward.
Ingres worldwide operations veep Steve Shine, who had been a vocal opponent of the government's failure to police its own policy, said his company welcomed the announcement. But Shine also warned that the policy could remain toothless if the government continued to fail to enforce its own rules.
“From the outset, we have commended the UK government for its comprehensive and balanced approach, however we still struggle to see how these latest changes will have much impact as this policy is not being enforced," he said.
"These latest changes still leave it unclear as to which part of the government will be responsible for enforcing these policies and we look forward to the CIO’s office clarifying this vital point as soon as possible."
He called on the government to look at various high profile IT tenders, including the Olympics, the upcoming MoD database refresh and several NHS contracts, to show how serious the Labour administration was about its policy.
“Since the government’s initial announcement last year to consider open source on a level playing field to proprietary vendors such as Oracle and Microsoft; we have in practice seen little difference during the sales cycle," he added.
The Register asked Microsoft if it would be displaying more of a "philanthropic spirit" when it comes to selling its products to the public sector, given the government's latest rejig of its open source and open standards rules.
We also asked if the company planned to offer up OSS products of its own.
Microsoft's UK national technology officer Dave Coplin reaffirmed to us that the company welcomed the government's "focus" on how to improve public sector IT procurement.
"The development of the 'Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use Action Plan' within the recently released Government ICT Strategy does not change the current position for a level playing field and a neutral procurement environment," he said.
"It is crucial that government IT procurement policy ensures that all software developers, whatever the software development model they choose to use or size of company, are given the opportunity to pitch for public sector contracts."
Coplin added that Microsoft "looked forward" to crunching cost of ownership numbers with the Cabinet Office. He claimed that the procurement of software amounted to only a "small fraction" of the costs of the life cycle of that product's deployment.
"Many other components such as ongoing support, maintenance, systems integration, training, downtime, etc., constitute costs which need to also be taken into consideration," he said. ®