Open SourceRegulationSoftwareWorkspace

Cabinet Office Launches Open Standards Consultation

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The views of the IT community on what open standards should mean in government ICT are being sought in a new consultation

The government has launched an open source consultation process, and called upon the IT community to engage in defining ‘open standards’ for government.

The consultation has been saddled with the ‘catchy’ moniker of Open Standards: Open Opportunities Flexibility and efficiency in Government IT.

According to the Cabinet Office, the consultation will focus on open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT.

Open Standards Consultation

It follows from the announcement last November, when the Cabinet Office confirmed it would launch a fresh public consultation on its open standards policy.

Last March, the government revealed its ICT strategy, which committed it to creating a common IT infrastructure based on a suite of compulsory open standards, and adopting appropriate open standards wherever possible.

The consultation will be used for the definition of open standards in the context of government IT; the meaning of mandation (making something mandatory) and the effects compulsory standards may have on government departments, delivery partners and supply chains; and international alignment and cross-border interoperability.

“The government’s ICT strategy is delivering savings across the board and will make sure we have an IT system fit for the 21st Century,” said Francis Maude (pictured), Minister for the Cabinet Office.

“We are committed to implementing open standards and want to create a level playing field for open source and proprietary software,” said Maude. “Open standards for software and systems will reduce costs and enable us to provide better public services. We want to get this right; so we want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to have their say on this matter.”

Feedback Sought

At the heart of this open source drive is Liam Maxwell (pictured), director for ICT Futures in the Cabinet Office.

Maxwell is a known open source enthusiast and is widely considered to be the man behind the Government’s open source strategy drive.

“It’s vitally important we get as much feedback from the IT community as possible,” said Maxwell. “There was a great response to the UK Government Open Standards Survey we ran last year and we’ve proposed a policy that takes on board what people said. Some questions remain however, so this formal consultation is taking place so that we can stimulate a transparent debate and gather further evidence.”

“There’s a lot of strong opinion on this subject – so I’m urging people to take this opportunity and let us know what they think,” he added.

Industry Concerns

There are some concerns over the level of government commitment to open source, especially after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC last September revealed that most government departments still spend the lion’s share of their IT budgets on software from big-name vendors, such as Microsoft and Oracle, rather than seeking cheaper open source alternatives.

This concern is not helped as basic points on the government ICT policy have so far remained unclear, including what is meant by an open standard. The way in which “open standard” is defined is crucial, because standards accepted as “open” by some may be effectively unusable by others.

The government announced its support for open standards in IT procurement in November last year. The open source and open standards drive in the UK mirrors current European thinking on the matter, as the European Union is currently pushing the open eGovernment services concept strongly.