Open-source software is making headway into the UK government, but faces a major obstacle in the form of a public-sector culture that tends to stick with large companies and known systems, according to John Pugh, Liberal Democrat member of parliament for Southport.
However, open-source companies can make headway in the public sector by competing on price, and through a campaign of "charm and harrying", Pugh argued. He was speaking at the Linux User and Developer Expo 2003 in Birmingham on Tuesday.
In recent months, the e-envoy and the Department of Trade and Industry have issued promising policy statements recognising the potential value of using and procuring open-source software, Pugh noted. The government has said it will consider open-source software on equal terms with proprietary software when procuring IT systems, and is considering putting all government-procured software under open-source licences.
Open-source software generally can be modified and redistributed for free, as long as the modifications are returned to the developer community. Governments in Europe have shown interest in open source as a way of freeing themselves from a dependency on overseas software companies, and of stimulating local software industry.
Pugh said that as a member of an opposition party, he feels a natural affinity for open-source software. "I have been a Liberal Democrat for a long time, so I have an in-built bias against lack of choice," he quipped. "I feel the same way about Microsoft as I do about News International."
Despite the apparent progress in the UK government, however, Pugh said real change has yet to be seen.
"There have been some exemplary documents produced by the e-envoy about open source, but those were just positioning documents," he said. "I fear that they may indicate an acceptance to go with open source in their convictions, but illustrate by their behaviour a practical neglect. I suspect we will see a persistence of procurement deals that contain lock-ins and lead to supplier dependence."
Other government practices not related directly to procurement can help to hamper the spread of open source, he said, noting the sluggishness of the Inland Revenue to support browsers other than Internet Explorer. IE, which has a market share of more than 90 percent, is only available for Windows and Macintosh PCs.
When buying software and computer systems, Pugh said, public sector culture weighs against anything innovative and new, even if it costs less than alternatives. "The big firm is a reassurance to the procurer," Pugh said. "This is a culture of 'mind your back, don't do anything wrong, don't take risks'. People's decisions are influenced by their ignorance and fears, and that beats a steady trail to the Microsoft office." Governments also tend to find IT outsourcing deals attractive, with the result that the procurement decision is taken out of their hands, Pugh said. Weighing in favour of open source, however, is the extreme transparency of the government procurement process, which allows any member of the public to look up how public money is being spent. Pugh urged open-source companies to keep an eye on how software was being procured, and to complain if they felt they were being unfairly kept out of the process. "The open-source community needs to embark on a process of charm and harrying. Charming is worthwhile, but you also should follow the auditor trail of procurement," he said. "In many cases the Linux community will have valid reasons to complain in cases where they are excluded." Other factors working in favour of Linux and other open-source software, said the MP, include the high quality, security and relative freedom from viruses of the software, and the ability of administrators to exercise complete control over what users are doing on Linux desktops. Price is also a major issue, Pugh said. "In a tender evaluation, if the price disparities are there, and they may be huge in many cases, people need to be reasonably cautious about turning (an open-source bid) down."