UK finally moves on Open Standards

When it comes to Free Software and Open Standards, the UK has long lagged way behind other countries. There were a few policies that sounded good on paper, but that’s exactly where they stayed.

This may be finally changing. The UK Cabinet Office has issued a “procurement policy notice” (.pdf) that is, well, surprising. In a good way. It tells public bodies in the UK how they should go about buying software. It says the right things:

When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and
services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever
possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications.

and for the right reasons:

Government assets should be interoperable and open for re-use in order to maximise
return on investment, avoid technological lock-in, reduce operational risk in ICT
projects and provide responsive services for citizens and businesses.

But if you’ve followed the epic EIFv2 debate and its outcome, you’ll know that the key to it all is the definition of what an Open Standard is, exactly. This is where this little unassuming procurement notice really shines:

Government defines “open standards” as standards which:

  • result from and are maintained through an open, independent process;
  • are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent. [...]
  • are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost;
  • have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis;
    and
  • as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.

So, what does this amount to?

This is one of the stronger policies that we’ve seen from European governments. It certainly is a leap ahead for the UK, which until now has lagged behind many other European countries in terms of Free Software adoption in the public sector. We’d like to see similarly well-considered steps from more European governments.

The policy note is refreshingly clear on what constitutes an Open Standard. The requirement that patents which are included in Open Standards should be made available royalty-free is a welcome improvement over the fudged compromise in the new European Interoperability Framework. It’s good to see the UK government take leadership on this important issue, in its own interest and that of its citizens.

As the lamentable OOXML charade has shown, it’s important that standards are developed in a process that’s independent of any particular vendor, and open to all competitors and third parties. We commend the UK government for making this an explicit requirement. The definition of Open Standards could have been even further improved by demanding a reference implementation in Free Software.

Procurement based on this policy will bring the UK public sector strategic independence in its IT choices, freedom from vendor lock-in, and financial savings. It will also make it easier for UK citizens to communicate with their authorities using Free Software and Open Standards.

What next?

While this is an excellent document, we’re not quite there yet. The UK government has just opened a public consultation on Open Standards in government ICT that needs your input. Notably, the survey includes a section on what the definition of an Open Standard should be.

As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Implementation is what counts in the end, and the UK public sector has some credit left to earn in that respect. But this policy note takes the UK’s public sector one large step closer to software freedom, and into Europe’s fast lane of Free Software policy.