Conflict Of Interest Derails UK Open Source Consultation

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that the government’s open source consultation process has been extended, after a conflict of interest was discovered.

The consultation process, launched in february, calls on the IT community to define ‘‘open standards’ for government, a process seen as crucial to getting open source methods more widely used in the public sector. However, the results of the consultation’s first round table have had to be scrapped, because the facilitator, Andrew Hopkirk of the National Computing Centre (NCC) had not disclosed a link with Microsoft.

Microsoft Link

The round table, on behalf of ICT Futures on Competition and European Interaction on 4 April, was criticised for allowing spokespeople for big vendors to argue in favour of paid-for software, specifically giving advocates of FRAND (free reasonable and non-discriminatory) the chance to argue that free software on RF (royalty free) terms would be a bad thing.

In a blog after the event, the Cabinet Office’s open standards official, Linda Humphries said “The majority of the attendees considered that open standards, as defined in the policy, would close down the Government’s ability to benefit from an alternative standards development model and limit our choice – not least because they considered that the definition excludes standards that are made available on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms.”

Now, a new blog from Liam Maxwell, Deputy Government CIO, has revised that. Andy Hopkirk was engaged by the Cabinet Office as an independent facilitator on a pro-bono basis. After objections were raised, he blogged a response for Computer Weekly.

“Dr Hopkirk is a respected advocate for ‘openness and interoperability of systems, of people, processes and information technologies’,” stressed the Cabinet Office. “He has in the past, for example, been an invited observer at events such as Open Forum Europe.”

“However, at the time he was engaged to facilitate the Open Standards roundtable, while we were aware that he represented the National Computing Centre (NCC) on the Microsoft Interoperability Executive Customer Council (along with 40 other CIOs/CTOs across the public and private sector who participate in a voluntary capacity) he did not declare the fact that he was advising Microsoft directly on the Open Standards consultation,” said the Cabinet Office.

“When this came to our attention we asked Dr Hopkirk for an explanation and he has told us that he has ‘not been paid to specifically write their response to the Open Standards consultation but he is engaged to help them tease out the issues’,” said the Cabinet Office.

It said that this could be seen as a clear conflict of interest and should have been declared by the relevant parties at that meeting.

“For this reason any outcomes from the original roundtable discussion will be discounted in the consultation responses and we will rerun that session and give time for people to prepare for it,” it said. “We will also run a teleconference as well as a meeting to ensure that everybody has a chance to participate.”

Furthermore the Cabinet Office declared that the consultation will now be extended for an additional month, and that the formal closing date for submissions will now be Monday, 4th June 2012.

Dr Hopkirk has defended his position, saying that he maintains a “strict firewall” between his activities.”I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective,” he said in his Computer Weekly blog. “I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. ”

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.

In March 2011, 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.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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