Government Commitment To Open Source Flounders

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An FOI request by the BBC reveals that the UK government is failing to follow through on its open source promises

The government continues to spend billions on proprietary software, despite promising earlier this year that it would create a level playing field for open source software and impose compulsory open standards.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC has 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.

The Home Office, for example, currently spends around 80 percent of its software budget with US defence giant Raytheon Systems for “IT, Broadcasting and Telecoms software” – amounting to £21 million out of a total pot of £26 million over 18 months.

The Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, was unable to provide a breakdown of its IT spending, admitting that there is no centrally-held record of software used across the MoD. However, it said the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) procurement body alone had spent £40.7 million on software between February 2009 and March 2011.

The full data set is available via Google Docs here.

Missing out on big savings

The findings are perhaps disappointing, given the government’s claims in its ICT cost-cutting strategy in March that it could save millions of pounds worth of public money through encouraging small business innovation and embracing open source technologies.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude admitted at the time that  the government had wasted vast amounts of money on ineffective and duplicate IT systems, and promised to “end the oligopoly of big business supplying government IT by breaking down contracts into smaller, more flexible projects”.

However, according to Mark Taylor (pictured), CEO of Sirius Corporation and lead for the Cabinet Office working group known as ‘New Suppliers to Government’, the coalition is still wasting around £20 billion each year on expensive proprietary software and the supplier ecosystem which surrounds it.

“The Cabinet Office vows are frankly not worth the paper they are printed on. After more than a year of promises, there is not the slightest bit of progress, and related programmes such as increasing the number of SMEs supplying government are not only failing, they are going in reverse,” Taylor told eWEEK Europe.

Government open source fiasco

Taylor pointed to the Cabinet Office’s headline project of creating an “IT and IT Services Asset Register” as an example of the government’s lack of commitment to open source.

Back in June, the Cabinet Office invited the UK’s leading open source companies to tender for the project, which was to create an accurate database of what the government spends on IT and how much of this is open source. Suppliers were given just one week to prepare their bids.

However the project – worth £100,000 over three years – was awarded to CDS, an established supplier of systems and information services to the defence sector, which had not even been invited to the meeting. The company’s e-PIMS property asset system is mandated for use across government.

“If the politicians, like Francis Maude and George Osborne, who claim this government are serious about open source are interested, they should be aware that Whitehall have turned their public statements on the subject into a farce, and have achieved precisely the opposite,” added Taylor.

Lack of understanding

Meanwhile, some industry commentators believe that the poor level of open source adoption in government is due to a stigma around open source software.

“The problem is that too many people think the best software is the most expensive software. As a result they end up wasting money on expensive proprietary technology,” said James Peel, product manager at open-source IT monitoring provider Opsview. “What we need is a culture change.”

Peel said that the private sector is now waking up to the cost-saving potential of open source technology, with companies starting to question their investments in proprietary monitoring software from larger vendors. “The public sector needs to follow suit,” said Peel. “At a time of austerity, the government can’t afford to ignore these more cost effective options.”

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