Is the UK Government turning its back on Open Standards and Open Source?

21 January 2016

The Government ICT Strategy, published in March 2011, marked the start of an exciting new chapter in its IT agenda. It committed to support the Government to reform the way they procure, design and run IT-enabled business change.

Part of that strategy was a commitment to “create a common and secure IT infrastructure based on a suite of compulsory open standards, adopting appropriate open standards wherever possible.” In so doing, the Government hoped to facilitate the delivery of:

• a level playing field for open-source and proprietary software providers competing for government IT contracts
• improved flexibility and ability for government to cooperate with other bodies, citizens and businesses
• disaggregation of IT contracts, supporting the Government’s IT strategy against contracts over £100 million
• better value for money in government IT projects

Nearly five years on, however, central government IT decision-makers are not following mandates to use Open Standards when dealing with Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers, who offer computer hardware, storage, services and data centre space. Neither the Cabinet Office nor Govspend.org.uk, the main independent publisher of G-Cloud spend data, record any sales data by open-source or open-standards categories.

An investigation into IaaS sales via the published G-Cloud spend figures enables us to measure the proportion of sales, based on open-source versus proprietary software. It seems the proportion of proprietary software accounts for between 90 per cent and 98 per cent of G-Cloud sales. It is more difficult to establish an accurate estimate of the use of open standards in G-Cloud IaaS contracts but the percentage is very small.

According to the Open Standards Principles, compulsory open standards must be specified by government bodies through a “comply or explain” process. Customer can then search for open-standards software through a tick box. Yet, as the purchasing process is separate, there is no way of tracking how many purchased services adhere to Open Standards, rendering the principles as little more than a box-ticking exercise.

If the Government is serious about adopting open standards, and helping UK-based businesses (especially SMEs), the procurement process must change. This should deliver better outcomes for both users and the taxpayer.

Ken Smith is the Commercial Director of Memset, an SME G-Cloud approved supplier of high-security, cost-effective utility Infrastructure-as-a-Service Cloud products to UK Government.

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