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Open Source Meets Open Standards
Six weeks ago, a significant policy change regarding the adoption of Open Source software (OSS) was issued by Tom Watson, Minister for Digital Engagement, after a last update dating back to 2004. Having worked myself a few years providing services around OSS for the French Government in the past, I find this move very interesting. With this change, the UK Government will be able to build upon the lessons learnt and the Best Practices that the industry has been defining over the last few years.
Level playing field
The new policy’s main goal is to provide a more “level playing field” between proprietary and Open Source Software in Government. It goes further than its continental European counterparts by encouraging new procurement rules to ensure an OSS option is included in every government IT procurement. This does not in itself enforce the use of OSS because the value for money and fitness for purpose criteria will still need to be demonstrated, as with proprietary software. However the policy explicitly gives an edge to OSS against proprietary software when these criteria are fulfilled, “on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility”. This feels quite sensible, realistic and objective in its principles. Yet, the question of how we can implement the action plan still has to be addressed.
Open Standards and Re-use, the real winners
Interestingly enough, the policy stresses that Open Source is not an end in itself but more a means to contribute to the “wider aims of re–use and open standards” and it is indeed sensible to position the debate at this level. Open Standards, interoperability and re-use are difficult to argue against when building better quality and cost-effective systems for citizens with taxpayers’ money. It is also an area where proprietary software vendors can – and will need to – openly compete.
Another interesting point is that the cost aspect is not directly mentioned as an advantage. This is again wise as the value for money argument can sometimes be fallacious because of the potentially significant hidden costs that can appear in under-considered areas such as management tooling, application management, support and training.
All in all, it’s no accident that the new policy is labelled “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use”. Some may find it confusing but they are actually all interlinked. Although Open Source is no silver bullet, it bears specific characteristics that can help achieve the other two. Here’s how.
Open Source and Open Standards hand in hand
Even if OSS doesn’t mean Open Standards, the reality is that they generally support and help each other:
often relies on Open Standards to stimulate adoption and Open Standards are typically implemented first in Open Source applications.
The Open Source community has recently even been more proactive by developing new International standards such as the Open Document Format, which has in turn forced major proprietary vendors to open their own formats. Policy changes like this one allow these movements to be set into motion, promoting wider choice for the end-user and stronger competition between all software providers. It also triggers a new race for innovation and differentiation on added value rather than proprietary lock-in.
Open Source’s further re-use potential
Open Source Software’s common reliance on Open Standards is one thing. However, OSS’ re-usability is also enhanced by its specific licensing principles and obviously by the openness of the source code itself. One must still watch out for the diverse licensing implications coming with all sorts of
Even if this doesn’t ensure that it is easy to reuse
in larger applications, it does enable its technical and legal feasibility.
Bringing it all together: intra-governmental collaboration
This is one area, outlined in the policy, with high potential for UK Government and where Open Source Software has a power of its own. Many systems that are used locally in different areas of Central and Local Government are indeed similar in their functionality. In this respect, encouraging the collaborative development of cross-Government Open Source applications re-using existing Open Source stacks can be a good idea, especially if these common stacks are shared across all Government IT service providers, internal and external.
Existing Open Source stacks, tools and techniques, development methodologies and governance are particularly suited to achieving re-use through such collaboration projects. They have been in place for years to enable the efficient development of software by loosely coupled, geographically distributed teams of developers belonging to different types of organisation. This is exactly the same type of challenge that will be faced by cross-Government collaboration projects involving all types of actors within and outside the Government.
Work in progress…
The principles are now laid out and overall they make sense, but the UK Government will need to go further in defining how they want to implement the action plan both internally and through the vendors who provide much of the IT across the public sector. Among other things:
- Awareness must be built internally and externally on what Open Source is and isn’t, its different flavours, licensing variants, etc.
- A common Open Source selection methodology across the government needs to be defined or chosen/adapted from the ones already available: It must take into account Open Source specifics like project maturity assessment, community activity, community organisation, documentation, roadmap, availability of support offerings, etc.
- A TCO model must be defined to measure the real cost for acquiring, using and operating Open Source alternatives. It must take into account “hidden costs” such as management tooling, application management,. support and training, This model must “plug into” the selection methodology,
- There is a need to implement a common repository for Open Source software evaluations, including TCO models, so they can be consistently applied,
- Reusing Open Source stacks involves the deployment of a common code and application repository across the Government,
- Collaborating on intra-Government Open Source stacks requires defining the right Governance, as well as deploying Forge-like collaboration and development tools to support it,
- Development by an internal distributed community would involve adapting the development methodologies in place, from classic waterfall to rapid and frequent software iterations, etc.
In short, there is still a lot of work ahead in order to make this policy a practical reality, but this first step hits the right nails by identifying Open Source as one of the tools to promote more openness and to deliver better services to citizens.