UK local government lags behind in open source

Open source software isn't just for people with beards and long hair, according to a speaker at a conference in London, where it was noted that Britain is lagging behind other European countries in terms of open source take-up

There are more than twice as many French and German local authorities using open source software than there are UK authorities doing so, according to a survey.

According to the preliminary results of a survey carried out by a Dutch University, only 32 percent of UK local authorities are using open source software, compared to 71 percent of French, 68 percent of German and 55 percent of Dutch authorities. The results, which include data from 371 local authorities across 13 European countries, were announced by Rishab Ghosh, the programme leader of the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) survey, at an open source software conference in London on Thursday. The full results of the survey, which will include data from 750 respondents, are due to be announced in February.

Ghosh said that one possible reason why the UK lags behind other European countries is the lack of clarity in UK government policy.

"In the UK, the government policy seems to be confused and is implemented differently between departments," said Ghosh.

The government's procurement watchdog, the Office of Government Commerce, published a report that said open source is "a viable desktop alternative for the majority of government users" in October last year. But, shortly after the publication of this report, the NHS awarded Microsoft a nine-year contract to put its software on 900,000 computers.

A conference attendees raised concerns about the value of the government's policy if it is not enforced.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of joined up thinking between departments in government policy," said one attendee. "One department in particular, the NHS, seems to be breaking all the rules in the policy. Do you have any thoughts on the usefulness or otherwise of the policy, and how it might be monitored?"

Other European countries have shown what appears to be a more proactive approach to encouraging the use of open source software in public institutions. The French and German government have published extensive guidelines on the use of free software in government, said Ghosh.

The Dutch government has supported its open source policy by setting up OSOSS, a government funded agency to give public agencies legal, technical and organisational advice on open source software. Mark Bressers, a programme manager at OSOSS, speaking at the conference, said it has tackled many misconceptions about open source software, such as the view that it is free of charge and therefore not compatible with a capitalist society.

"There are a lot of prejudices against open source software -- people think its free software and wonder why people would want to do that for free," said Bresser. "They think those kind of people must be people with beards and long hair. It's important to build confidence in open source software. We tell them that people in suits and ties are investing in open source software, and that it is not anti-capitalist -- for a lot of agencies it's important to know that."

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