Get going already! On the dire state of Free Software and Open Standards in the UK’s public sector

What can Free Software do for the UK’s public sector? That was the topic of a Westminster eForum seminar in London yesterday. The answer is: Pretty much everything, if the public sector lets it.

Britain is the sick man of Europe in terms of Free Software adoption. There are few large deployments to speak of. The fine policies and action plan of the previous Labour government remain all mouth and no trousers, along with the current government’s pre-election promises. Those public bodies that do try to migrate are confronted with massive lock-in across the public sector, as everyone else uses proprietary file formats for document exchange.

Bristol’s city council is a case in point. They put a lot of effort into a pioneering migration, but eventually found the lock-in pressure more than they could bear. To their credit, they haven’t given up. When Bristol’s city councillor Mark Wright took over the responsibility for the city’s IT, “I made it clear that we would move away from open source over my dead body”, he said yesterday. On Wednesday, the council announced that it was migrating parts of its systems to Free Software, but would have to stick to proprietary operating systems on the desktop. It’s also installing OpenOffice on all desktops side-by-side with the monopoly product. This way the council makes sure that everyone there can read and write documents in Open Standards.

According to Mark Taylor of Sirius IT, 80% of government IT spending in the UK goes to only five companies. The comparable figures in the US are ca. 50%, and 20% in the Netherlands. This means that the UK’s market for IT services is enormously centralised, with very little competition. Or, as one speaker put it: “Proprietary software companies just love doing business here in the UK, because the margins are great.”

The new government may just shake things up a bit, though mostly inadvertently so. To combat Britain’s massive deficit, government organisations are facing brutal budget cuts of about 30%, so everyone is currently scrambling to identify possible savings.

While this might lead some IT departments to think about using more Free Software, the big stumbling block is the lack of an Open Standards policy. Without it, anyone attempting a desktop migration will continue to be affected by the lock-in of that blights the public sector.

It’s also necessary to change the way the public sector buys software and IT services. Public bodies need to specify outcomes rather than brands. All too often, public calls for tender say “we want 100 licenses for groupware from vendor X”. The correct way to do it is to say “we need groupware for 100 workers”. This way, anyone can submit an offer for a solution, whether Free Software or not. Otherwise, only the sales partners of the named vendor can participate. That excludes any number of competitors, which is the reason why the practice of naming brands is illegal under European procurement rules.

The Conservatives, now in government together with the Liberal Democrats, made noises in this direction before the election, but haven’t shown any activity on the topic since then. If the coalition government is serious about pulling Britain out of its gigantic budget hole, then public sector IT spending is a good place to start. Free Software and Open Standards bring strategic independence and save money. If yesterday’s seminar is any indication, Britain’s private sector is eager and more than ready to take on the challenge.