The government has published its policy on open-source software, promising to use open source rather than proprietary alternatives if there is no significant cost difference in products and services.
In a statement on Tuesday, the government said IT procurement decisions will be judged on total cost of ownership (TCO), including exit and transition costs. Open source will be favoured if the TCO is similar for open-source and proprietary products and services.
The stated rationale behind the move is that open-source software and technology based on open standards are more flexible and can offer better value for money.
"Open-source products are more competitive and have become easier to include in business, and major players in the IT industry now support the use of open standards," said minister for digital engagement, Tom Watson, in a statement. "Several government departments already use open-source components and I hope this new policy will encourage others to follow suit."
Watson said open source was not a "cure-all remedy", but said "levelling the playing field" would give better value for taxpayers' money, which was "more important than ever during the worldwide financial climate".
The government action plan on open source was published in a document entitled Open Source, Open Standards, and Re-Use. The government pledged that, where possible, its departments would avoid becoming "locked in" to proprietary software, and that it would take into account exit, re-bid and rebuild costs. The government said it would also "require those proposing proprietary software to specify how exit would be achieved", and would support the re-use of products and services where possible.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson on Wednesday insisted that the government had implicitly followed best value-for-money practices in IT procurement, despite numerous failed government IT projects. In December the Liberal Democrats called for an immediate halt to the NHS National Project for IT, describing the programme as "a shambles". In 2007, the government admitted that seven out of 10 government IT projects fail, falling down on value for money.
"We have had an open-source policy since 2004, where we said we would take every opportunity to level the playing field," the Cabinet Office spokesperson said. "Since then, we have taken on open source in government departments and the NHS."
The spokesperson said the policy was being made explicit "to make sure the playing field really is level", and denied that the policy had been formulated in reaction to opposition party criticism. The Conservative party said last month that the government was "falling far behind" in open source.
"It's not a knee-jerk [reaction]," the spokesperson said. "We've been working on this policy for several months."
Open-source vendors welcomed the government policy. "In the current economic climate, attention is focused on ways to keep down costs while increasing return on investment," Sun's UK managing director Kim Jones said in a statement. "The UK government could save millions of pounds every year if it made more use of open source as part of a competitive procurement system."
Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius Corporation, the only open-source supplier on a list of IT companies approved for use in UK schools, reacted positively but cautiously.
"The UK government's announcement looks good on paper, but everything depends on what comes next," Taylor said in a statement. "Now is the time for the government to match its words with actions, and prove it is serious about saving taxpayers' money by making the change to open source, open standards and open content."