UK takes huge step forward on Open Standards

Today is a good day for Free Software companies in the UK.

The UK government is certainly taking a long and winding road towards Free Software and Open Standards. The UK’s public sector doesn’t use a lot of Free Software, and many smaller Free Software companies have found it comparatively hard to get public sector buyers for their products and services. The main reason is that government agencies at all levels are locked into proprietary, vendor-specific file formats. Government’s tendency towards gigantic IT contracts didn’t help. Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said today that “despite accounting for half the turnover in the UK economy – were winning only around 6.5% of Central Government’s procurement spend.”

Today, the UK took a long-awaited, important step towards fixing this problem. (FSFE press release) It published a set of “Open Standards principles” (pdf). They’re effective immediately, and all central government bodies will have to abide by them. It also put out a response to the public Open Standards consultation that it had run up to June 2012. (See FSFE’s response to the consultation.) In this post, I’m covering only the Open Standards principles.

The first thing we need to look at in an “Open Standards policy” is how the term “Open Standards” is defined. FSFE has a clear definition, and it appears that the UK government has been paying attention. Patents that are essential to implementing a standard must be licensed free of royalties or other restrictions. And that’s what the UK government has finally done here:

Rights – rights essential to implementation of the standard, and for interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that  same standard, are licensed on a royalty free basis that is compatible with both open source and proprietary licensed solutions. These rights should be irrevocable unless there is a breach of licence conditions.

There’s none of the pussy-footing that turned the European Interoperability Framework from a valuable document into a useless mush two years ago.

Francis Maude, Minister for the UK’s Cabinet Office, has it right when he says:

Following this consultation I am today publishing our Open Standards Principles. These set out that Royalty Free open standards are key to levelling the playing field for open source and proprietary software in government IT.

And that competition between open source and proprietary software can result in lower licensing costs and increased innovation in government IT.

These Standards are going to have a huge impact. In the future all Government bodies must comply with the Open Standards Principles or apply for an exemption. And a challenging comply or explain process is being implemented, through the existing IT spend controls process.

The Open Standards Principles contain a number of important points. Many of these are things that FSFE has been pushing for for a long time.

The product choice made by a government body must not force other users, delivery partners or government bodies, to buy the same product e.g. web-based applications must work equally well with a range of standards-compliant browsers, irrespective of  operating system, and not tie the user to a single browser or desktop solution.


Government bodies must be clear about the user need and functional outcome for a standards-based solution in specifications so  that suppliers can meet these needs. Government bodies must not specify particular brands or products.

If this sounds revolutionary, it shouldn’t. Here, the government merely makes clear what is already required under European law.

The cost of getting out of a proprietary solution often turns into a roadblock for efforts to migrate to Free Software, when it doesn’t serve as an excuse to not even consider such a migration (yes, European Commission’s DG DIGIT, I’m looking at you). This is something the UK government gets right in its new policy:

As part of examining the total cost of ownership of a government IT solution, the costs of exit for a component should be estimated at the start of implementation. As unlocking costs are identified, these must be associated with the incumbent supplier/system and not be associated with cost of new IT projects.

So if a government body buys into, say, Microsoft Office, it can’t simply rely on the sticker price for the solution. It also has to add how much it will cost, for a future migration five years from now to convert millions of files into a different format. With proprietary formats, this cost can be substantial. With Open Standards, it’s usually zero.

There’s more. They openly admit that their customary ways of buying software and services weren’t working so well:

The Government’s procurement choices have resulted in a lack of diversity in existing government IT contracts. As a purchaser of IT, this restricts our options and threatens value for money.

This is refreshingly honest.

It’s good to see that the government took up FSFE’s recommendation to avoid large IT contracts, and use larger numbers of smaller contracts instead, so as to give SMEs a chance to participate.

Government bodies can ask for an exemption from the Open Standards policy for a particular case. While this may sometimes be necessary to keep operations running smoothly, it also represents a back door that, if widely exploited, could render the entire policy ineffective. One way to mititgate this risk is to expose any exemptions to public scrutiny:

All agreed exemptions to the open standards policy must be published, detailing the standards specified and the reasons for  exemption, unless there are national security considerations which prevent this.

We’ll all need to be vigilant that this doesn’t turn into an easy way out of implementing the policy. The government of course needs to take the lead here, but if they fail to do so, we can help make sure that things stay on track.

In this and other respects, the UK government wisely recognises that policies by themselves don’t do much good – they also need to be properly implemented. Public scrutiny will help drive this process:

Government bodies must provide publicly available information on their alignment with compulsory open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats. Implementation plans for transition to the open standards or open standard profiles, within a specific timeline, must be published.

When it comes to procuring Free Software, one frequent obstacle is that the people actually handling the procurement may not be familiar with the subject, and may not have the necessary knowledge to obtain the advantages of Free Software for their organisation. So the government will offer training and guidance:

Procurement, project management, information and IT professionals in government bodies must have the skills to make appropriate choices in IT specifications and bid assessments, in line with the Open Standards Principles. Training and guidance should be offered through partnerships with established profession and skills development networks.

On the whole, the Cabinet Office has done a great job with this policy, covering not only the principles of Open Standards, but also the practicalities of effectively implementing the policy. From what we hear, the big proprietary vendors have put them under tremendous pressure. There is sure to be some pushback. In the interest of those living and working in the UK, let’s hope that the Cabinet Office keeps its nerve.