All truth passes through three stages, said the philosopher Schopenhauer. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Just over a week ago the Financial Times paraphrased the formula I have been promoting for a decade in business, and in Politics for the last five years:
COMMODITY HARDWARE + OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE + SPECIALISED KNOWLEDGE = COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
Specifically, the FT identified Commodity Hardware and Open Source software as the new drivers for the IT market – lowering barriers to entry whilst unleashing creativity and innovation. Google, Facebook and Twitter, Cloud and SaaS, Android and mobile computing, a whole new generation of dynamic companies and new business models, all driven by Open Source infrastructure and Open Source tools. And not just the new, the London Stock Exchange, the heart of the City of London, moved this year to the Open Source Linux operating system.In technology, Open Source is the way of the future.
In technology, Open Source is the way of the future. In the media, Government IT is synonymous with waste, failure and overspend. Discounting for media hype, we can at least agree that Government IT is in trouble, and it is certainly too expensive.
The Cabinet Office places the figure at £16.9bn per annum, but will also tell you this is likely to be an underestimate. Many observers place the figure at up to £22bn per annum. Total government spend on suppliers is £220bn per annum, so IT accounts for 10% of all supplier spending! Unfortunately most people, including most politicians, switch off when IT is the subject, assuming that it’s technical and they can’t understand.
I’m a dad, and consequently get to watch some TV programmes I wouldn’t, shall we say, choose to watch left to my own devices. One such being “are you smarter than a ten-year old”. The format is simple, an adult is asked questions from the National Curriculum set for ten year olds. There is a team of ten year olds who will help out when the adult is stumped. If you or I were on the show now, they would tell us: “£20bn a year is too much to spend on IT each year!” It’s that simple. And a tenth of all supplier spending going on IT? You’re kidding right? To put it in perspective, we spend more on IT than we spend on Income Support, on the Ministry of Justice, on the Department of Transport, on the Army!
Now I know this fine audience is smarter than a ten-year-old, so I expect by now you’ve come to the conclusion that Open Source is the natural solution to the overspend and other problems of Government IT, and you are right.
You are also not alone in your conclusion. Many of the think-tanks around Government now agree with you, like the Centre for Policy Studies, the Centre for Technology Policy Research, Post Bureaucratic Age, Institute for Government, Platform 10. The Public Administration Select Committee is pursuing this topic. Most of all, the Coalition Government has made specific pledges regarding Open Source, the Chancellor as recently as yesterday stating “we want to remain at the cutting edge of Open Source policy making”.
So one year into the new Government we are making excellent progress, right?
Look beyond policy pronouncements, and there are some excellent ones, but look beyond them and absolutely nothing has changed.
There are no more Open Source deployments in the Public Sector than there was a year ago. It is still dominated by proprietary software. Procurement lists are still filled with tenders specifying specific proprietary products. Despite a pledge to place 25% of Government spending with SMEs, the IT market is still dominated by the same old oligopoly. Indeed just on Friday, as the PM was being reported as critical of the CSC NHS deal another part of the NHS was proudly announcing a 5 year outsourcing deal with, quote, the biggest IT company in the world.
A disconnect between policy and implementation? Perhaps. Rather than dwell on similarities with other policy areas I will use my last couple of minutes on the two main problems, and my three suggested solutions.
Problem number one is Habitual thinking/Habitual practice. While nobody would wish to go so far as to suggest collusion between public servants and the IT oligopoly the end result is the same. The same old faces and the same old solutions keep getting shovelled in, despite the fact they cost too much and don’t work. The biggest problem by far though is PROCUREMENT! Procurement lists last a long time, are costly and difficult to get onto, and if you’re not on them you cant win the tended.
I have three specific suggestions to bridge the gap between policy and reality.
First: Procurement reform is a great idea, but it is going to take a long time. In the meantime we need an Open Source specific procurement list. This has been achieved by the Swedish Government, so we already have a model, and it is successful.
Second: Enforcement. Give real power to enforce the great new Open Source, Open Standards and Open Data policies coming out of the Cabinet Office. Perhaps to the Cabinet Office, perhaps somewhere else, but if this isn’t done policy will never make it into practice.
Third, and finally: Benchmark. We need a Government-backed high profile and significant Open Source infrastructure project to act as a model and a standard to judge others by. Then we really will be at the cutting edge of Open Source policy making.
My message to you is that if you want to cut your budget, provide better services and be recognised as being a world leader in governing, then have an open approach to information technology. Do not ignore the great benefits to be had from adopting an Open Government mindset, just because the ‘new’ seems at first glance to be a ‘brave’ choice. There are great rewards – and minimal risk – for those who embrace what is able to be achieved now.”