Gov’t Publishes Open Source Procurement Advice

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The government has published procurement advice for public sector bodies acquiring open source software

The Government is looking to clear up any confusion about using open source software in the public sector with the Cabinet Office’s new open source procurement toolkit.

The toolkit is made up of the following six PDF and ODF documents:

  • All About Open Source – including FAQs
  • ICT Advice Note – Procurement of Open Source
  • Procurement Policy Note on Open Source
  • OSS Options
  • CESG Guidance on Open Source
  • Total Cost of Ownership

However, the CESG open source guidance will only open for those with official gsi.gov.uk email addresses. (The CESG is the cyber security arm of the UK intelligence services.)

Dispelling Myths

“The purpose of this toolkit is to ensure that there is a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and that some of the myths associated with open source are dispelled,” said the Cabinet Office website.

“It is intended for those who need to consider, evaluate or procure open source solutions as well as anyone just wanting to know more about open source,” it said.

The options document contains the details of different IT functions such as servers, databases, application development, networks and business applications, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Meanwhile, the TCO document offers open source procurement advice such as purchase price, licences and integration.

Bristol City Council

The publication of this toolkit comes after confusion about the security accreditation of certain open source software, a case highlighted by Bristol City Council.

This council had first revealed its intention to adopt open source alongside existing Microsoft software way back in September 2010. As part of an ongoing review of its desktop systems, the council was looking to replace its current email system with an open source alternative.

However, the plan hit the buffers when it was discovered that only three email systems are currently certified by CESG’s Code of Connection and security guidance documents. These systems are Lotus Notes, Novell Groupwise, and Microsoft Exchange.

Essentially, Bristol City Council was concerned that in choosing an open source system that was not accredited by CESG, it would not be able to process data rated at Business Impact Level 3, such as sensitive personal data and restricted information from government. The council was also reportedly advised by Microsoft reseller Computacenter that it could not use open source systems without falling foul of security rules.

However the matter was resolved when Bristol City Council was given the green light to push ahead with its open source strategy following a meeting with CESG in October.

Open Source Drive

The use of open source within government and public sector circles has long been an aim for both Labour and the Conservative Party.

In January 2010, for example, the then-Labour government issued a policy document that said that public sector IT spending could be cut by around £3.2 billion a year by more effective use of open source.

Yet both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, when in opposition, were widely regarded by experts as being way ahead of Labour on open source, especially considering the huge amount of money Labour spent on failed IT projects during its period in power.

In September last year the Coalition government announced that it would buy open source rather than proprietary software when the costs are similar.

That move was welcomed by some in the open source community, but others described the government’s open source policy as “toothless,” as it is not policed effectively. This may have been borne out in September 2011, when a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC 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.

But there are encouraging signs for open source.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude has promised to “end the oligopoly of big business supplying government IT by breaking down contracts into smaller, more flexible projects”.

And in June open source enthusiast Liam Maxell was appointed as technology adviser to the Cabinet Office.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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