Government To Slash IT Costs With Open Source, Green Tech

The government’s new IT strategy could cut sector spending by £3.2bn a year, but open source experts remain unconvinced about its commitment to non-proprietary software

Public sector IT spending could be cut by around £3.2 billion a year by more effective use of open source, as well as energy efficient technologies and cloud computing, according to new strategy and policy documents.

Announced this week, but leaked late last year, the Government’s ICT Strategy, ties IT spending to commitments to halve the public deficit by 2014, outlined in the Smarter Government programme, officials said. “Our new ICT Strategy is smarter, cheaper and greener and will save the public purse £3.2 billion annually,” said cabinet office minister Angela Smith.

The strategy includes establishing a government cloud or “G-Cloud” as well as cutting back the number of government data centres to 10 or 12 facilities. The data centre consolidation plan will save around £300 million and reduce power and cooling requirements by around 75 percent, the government states.

“We have seen a period of significant change over recent months and years,” said Government chief information officer John Suffolk. “Technology has changed, the economy has changed and ICT in government must also change. This strategy sets out a new model for Government ICT which will deliver a secure and resilient ICT infrastructure that will enable faster, better services for the public.”

But although the government appears to be positioning the ICT Strategy as a new reaction to the deficit, the amount it intends to curb is exactly the same as estimates laid out in a long term Treasury review of public spending released in April 2009. The Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP) stated that the public sector could trim around 20 percent of its current £16 billion annual spend on IT by 2014.

As well as making commitments to energy efficiency and cloud technology, the government also reiterated plans to champion open source software and open standards and avoid proprietary lock-in. The strategy is laid out in the “Open source, Open standards, Reuse” policy published alongside the ICT Strategy report.

“Since our last open source strategy was published in February 2009 we have been listening closely to the market and now this refresh addresses a number of the issues raised by experts in this field,” stated Angela Smith, in the foreword to the report. “Our refreshed open source strategy addresses these key points and sets out what we need to do to take full advantage of the benefits of open source, open standards and reuse.”

Progress on open source adoption laid out in the report includes claims that “over 25 percent of secondary schools use the Linux operating system on at least one computer” and “The NHS ‘Spine’ uses an open-sourced operating system meaning that 35 percent of NHS organisations (300,000 users) are supported on Linux infrastructure”.

But the reiteration of the government’s commitment to open source has been criticised by some open source experts who claim that the government’s poor record on non-proprietary software is unlikely to change. Mark Taylor, chief executive officer of open source consultants Sirius Corporation and founder of the Open Source Consortium, said that the public should not be “fooled” by the latest policy.

“It’s vague and aspirational, but has no substance whatsoever. The fact is that the government’s appalling IT record is under scrutiny, the election is imminent, and both the Tories and Lib Dems are way ahead of them on Open Source,” said Taylor. “Everyone now accepts Open Source is the way forward in Public Sector IT, even the Government can’t deny it anymore, but they are the very last to the party. It’s nothing more than a fig-leaf to cover up ten years of thrall to huge proprietary interests and a pretense they’ll do better in future.”

Taylor also questioned the open source case studies cited in the report. The government holds up the example of Birmingham City Council as evidence of its progress on open source adoption:

“Birmingham City Council has been rolling out open source software across their library services since 2005. All staff and public PCs in their library services now have a mixture of open source and proprietary software,” the policy document states.

But according to Taylor, Birmingham’s record on open source shouldn’t be held up as an example. “I was very closely involved with Birmingham at the start (I resigned from the ‘Open Source Academy‘ when I saw what was happening) and it was a shamefull project,” he said. “The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister spent £600,000 (matched by Birmingham) subsidising a migration to Windows on the desktop throughout Birmingham libraries. The fact they are citing this as a ‘case study’ is proof that they have nothing, and also that they are either poorly informed or taking the mickey,” he said.