How far will the Tories change the face of tech in the UK?

Open source, mega contracts and free data pledges under the spotlight
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Open source, mega contracts and free data pledges under the spotlight

"Big is not always better and the state does not always know best": the two key themes that characterise the Conservative approach to IT in government, according to Adam Afriyie, shadow minister for innovation, universities and skills.

So far, this stance has translated into a three-pronged Tory plan for IT: slim down Labour's multibillion-pound computer systems, introduce more open source software and let the public delve into the reams of statistics that the state produces each year.

Here silicon.com picks apart the rhetoric and reveals whether there are any new ideas behind the Tories' tough talk on IT.

No more IT projects costing more than £100m

At the beginning of the year, the Conservatives published a review that claimed "the government would never again need to sign another IT contract worth more than £100 million".

It called for a change to the way Whitehall departmental computer systems have been designed under Labour, where costs are typically counted in the billions and projects take the best part of a decade to complete.

The review said that rather than relying on one large overarching system, government departments could be served by a network of smaller, cheaper systems able to understand each other's data.

The idea is that small interoperable systems within government would be able to have new functions and features bolted on and could be built up in a modular, Lego-like fashion.

The approach would allow new features to be added on a regular basis by different suppliers rather than waiting years for a project to redesign the entire system, the review said.


Will the Tories bring stormy weather or calm climate for government IT
(Photo credit: Paul Kehrer via Flickr under the following Creative Commons Licence)

The Conservatives hope that smaller IT projects will be easier to manage and less prone to delays and running tens or hundreds of millions over budget.

The Conservatives' Afriyie said that introducing more modest-sized systems, government would end the status quo whereby only a handful of very large IT suppliers had the resources and manpower to deliver Whitehall's monolithic IT systems.

"That could open up opportunities for more innovative companies of various sizes to supply solutions to government, while reducing the risk of vendor lock-in," Afriyie said.

The idea has some support as, at present, the high cost and large scale of public sector IT projects means that many small and medium-sized businesses do not have the resources to bid for Whitehall contracts, according to David Evans, head of communications and public affairs for the British Computer Society.

"Those who are campaigning to get SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] more active in the procurement system see it as the only way of doing it," he said.

Anthony Miller, managing partner with analyst house TechMarketView, believes that the first victory for smaller niche players could be in the National Programme for IT, where the Conservatives have pledged to renegotiate multibillion-pound contracts with BT and CSC to build and upgrade computer systems for local health trusts.

However, it is important not to get too carried away with the idea that the Conservatives will change the way that government carries out procurement for major IT projects - they have yet to make firm policy proposals on this front.

The Conservatives' strongest pronouncements on this front have come from shadow chancellor George Osborne, who in a speech in February said "government needs to stop thinking that when it comes to procuring IT systems, big is always beautiful" and made the statement that the move to open data standards "means big projects can be split into smaller elements, which can be delivered by different suppliers and then bolted together".

But for all the positive talk, the fact remains: the Conservatives have not made any concrete pledges about changes to IT procurement or given a timescale over which these changes would be introduced. With only positive words on the table it would be very easy for any future Conservative government to back away and maintain the status quo.

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Greater use of open source software

In order to realise further cuts to IT costs, the Conservatives also want to make wider use of open source software.

Shadow chancellor Osborne argued in February this year that open source "should be used where it makes sense and can deliver better value for money" and welcomed a review published the same month on how to create a level playing field for open source in Whitehall.

The Conservatives may also find themselves accidental open source advocates in future if they decide to push ahead with their plan to cut down the size of government IT contracts.

Shrinking the size of government IT systems and increasing the range of suppliers able to build them could result in government having a larger variety of open source software to choose from, according to the BCS's Evans.

"It is often the smaller providers who are offering open source solutions," he said.

"If we are going to see procurement that is less skewed towards the big providers then we are likely to see more open source coming in."

While a Tory party government may see open source take-up increase as a side effect of other policies, the party's commitment to using open source software in the public sector does not go any further than the firm policy pledges made under the Labour government.

In February of this year the CIO Council published a policy paper designed to stimulate the uptake of open source software across the public sector. The policy - a restatement of principles first laid out by the government in 2004 - stipulates that public sector bodies must choose open source software packages "where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products".

There have been criticisms that public bodies are failing to follow this policy but more recently open source vendors and advocates claim that more central and local government departments are increasingly giving open source software a fair hearing when tendering for new systems.

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Setting data free

Making official data accessible to everyone is another of the Conservatives' technology aims.

Speaking in February, shadow chancellor George Osborne said: "We need to move in the direction of what are known as 'open standards' - in effect, creating a common language for government IT."

More concrete proposals emerged in June when Conservative leader David Cameron made a speech pledging to publish data from 20 "different areas" within government, from NHS information, to data on road accidents.

Cameron said data from these areas would be published on a regular basis and that a Conservative government would create a "new right to data", which would allow people to request further sets of data generated by government. Any refusal would have to be justified on the grounds of cost, privacy or national security, he added.

Data should be published in a standardised format to allow people to create online mash-ups and compare different types of information, Cameron said.

The Tory leader said he hopes the approach will allow people to "develop new public services", citing the success of the TheyWorkForYou website, which started as a volunteer-led site that allowed people to keep tabs on their MP using information from Hansard, the daily record of decisions and discussions within Parliament.

By releasing data to the public, the Conservatives hope the man on the street will also be able to combine different data sets to reveal facts that will improve public life - such as linking a large number of food take-away licences in a town with a higher incidence of heart disease.

Again, behind the Conservative's grandstanding there is not a great deal of significance. Labour has already made bolder commitments to opening up public data by accepting the recommendations of the recent report by the Power of Information Task Force.

In its report in March, the task force recommended that the government should this year create prototype "repositories" where public information could be published online in an open format.

The report also charged the Office of Public Sector Information with testing the model and publishing a delivery plan this summer.

In order to realise the task force's recommendations, in June the government appointed world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee as the Cabinet Office's adviser on opening up government data.

According to Berners-Lee, raw government data should be put on the web "as soon as possible" and under his guidance the Cabinet Office has set up the government website that will eventually act as the public's portal to Whitehall data.

The site will bring together data from across Whitehall in an open format, allowing people to combine it with other data and republish it in graphs and tables.

A beta version of the site containing facts and figures from about 1,000 datasets is being tested by web developers and the full version is expected to launch in December.

Berners-Lee recommended that, where possible, the data should be published in an open format called resource description format (RDF). According to Berners-Lee, using RDF will not only allow the data to be mashed up but it will allow additional metadata to be added to better describe the nature of the information and its links to other data, enabling computers searching the web to begin understanding the relationships between people, places and things.

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