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The UK Public Sector Finally Gets Open Source

After years of lagging behind, the UK Government is finally getting open source right, says Yves de Montcheuil

The use of open source technology in the UK’s public sector has historically lagged behind other European countries, most notably France and Germany, both of which have successfully embraced open source to deliver enhanced value to the taxpayer through efficiency and collaboration.

There are several reasons why Government uptake of open source has been slow. One of the most important is that public bodies have been locked into long-term IT contracts which limit their ability to choose new software. Also, while most solutions in the open source space are provided by small and medium-sized suppliers, the vast majority of Government IT work is still carried by the largest technology suppliers.

Britain opens up to open source

British Antarctic Survey Penguins © lfstewart ShutterstockToday, however, there are definite signs that the UK public sector is starting to embrace open source and that the technology is beginning to gain a foothold in government.  The Conservative Technology Manifesto for 2010 stated, “we will create a level playing field for open source IT by implementing open standards across government IT systems.”

In February 2012, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, asserted: “open standards for software and systems will reduce costs and enable us to provide better public services. We want to get this right.”

The Government is currently consulting on its open standards policy and today, there are some encouraging examples of greater open source adoption.

The choice of the Drupal Content Management System,, an open source solution, as the platform for the Cabinet Office and the site is a case in point, as is the Department of Health’s use of open source to work with EU partners.  Awareness is also growing across the wider public sector about the business advantages of open source technology.

Meeting market needs

Being already 50 to 80 percent more cost-effective than equivalent proprietary solutions, open source software continues to evolve to meet market needs. Although the reduction of IT costs is one of the main factors for adopting open source software, other arguments have weighed in. After all, what good is cost-effective technology if it does not also offer users guarantees in terms of reliability, service, interoperability and performance?

Free access to open source software code enables public administrations to customise applications to their specific situations, rather than needing to adapt to predefined processes. This customisation may also lead to an improvement of the software which can then be shared with the entire user community. This shared research and development capability is effectively made possible by the open and collaborative way in which the open source community works.

Standards for interoperability

One of the main obstacles to e-administration lies in application interoperability. Proprietary solutions, which were rarely based on standards in the past, were simply not created in the spirit of dialogue, exchange and collaboration. As a direct consequence, companies had to invest a considerable amount of time and money to succeed in making them work together.

Standards compliance, a principle adopted by all open source vendors, helps resolve this interoperability problem. The vendors’ goal is not to create a captive audience via proprietary specifications but to respond optimally to a need and therefore open their solutions to facilitate their integration into information systems.

Originally regarded as tools made by developers for developers and as solutions characterised by complexity, open source tools are now user-friendly and easy-to-learn. Extensive training is not typically required. The speed of learning promotes user adoption and reduces ownership costs. At the same time, by offering their solutions via direct downloads, open source vendors cut procurement and deployment time and remove friction from the adoption process.

Care in the community

Open source and community go hand-in-hand. Open source software users take advantage of the power of the vendor’s community network in terms of both support and product development. A community website generally offers various resources to facilitate the implementation and maintenance of solutions.

Open source vendors backing (or driving) the projects also often encourage contributions from users who develop connectors, features, or change the source code in order to share their contributions with the community.

Today open source vendors just like all proprietary enterprise technology vendors  also provide professional services issued either by internal experts, or by certified partners, in order to facilitate the rise of project teams and increase their productivity. They have, like the support services of major vendors, commitments on service level agreements (SLAs) and guaranteed response times etc. These services are clearly on a par, if not better, than the service the government has come to expect from its IT suppliers.

Open source solutions are now recognised as true business tools, providing functionality equivalent or superior to that of proprietary products. A vendor usually relies primarily on its own R&D teams. However, open source vendors  can also enhance their solutions through contributions from their community.

Typically community members discuss and review what they have done and developed, while the vendor keeps control of which elements are integrated into the ongoing development of the product.

Open source benefits

With awareness of the benefits of open source technology growing, take-up is increasing across the public sector. In the early days of open source implementations, driven by the potential cost savings, councils typically led the way. Early adopters included the London Borough of Camden which has been deploying open source software since 2001 and Powys County Council in Wales has been using it since the mid-1990s in large part to provide local schools with a means of delivering Internet and email access to their pupils.

Today however, in the wake of the government’s latest initiatives, we are seeing renewed interest in open source from councils and growing numbers are now adopting the technology. For example, Oxfordshire County Council recently selected an open source data management tool, Talend Enterprise Data Integration, to manage integration of data for local government expenditure reporting.

The UK is moving in the right direction to catch up with other countries in Europe in the move to open source adoption. More still needs to be done however. With the public sector focused on cutting costs and driving efficiencies to become more operationally agile, it is vital that it uses open source to take advantage of the latest technological advancements to drive business efficiencies while remaining cost-effective at the same time.

Yves de Montcheuil, is vice president of Marketing at Talend