Open source is 'below the radar' of local government

LinuxWorld: The London mayor's IT adviser says that the use of open-source software such as Linux is a pretty low priority for IT managers in local government

Alex Bax, a senior policy officer at the Greater London Authority (GLA) led by London mayor Ken Livingstone, said that open source was not an important issue to local government.

"Open source is below the radar of senior decision makers," said Bax, speaking at a public sector conference session at the LinuxWorld Expo in London on Thursday.

Bax said that political pressures dominate local government and politicians don't win votes through supporting open-source software.

The lack of GLA's interest in open source is revealed by a document on IT policies for London published in January 2004. The document only mentions open-source software once in its 24 pages, in terms of its potential to make the Internet more affordable for low income households.

The GLA's lack of interest in open source is not shared by all local government bodies in London. Newham Borough Council recently went through a high-profile tendering process involving both Linux and Windows, eventually choosing to go with the proprietary solution from Microsoft.

Bax said there are various reasons why open-source software has had a limited use in software systems developed by various government bodies. Some argue that the total cost of ownership of Linux is lower than for Microsoft's Windows, but Bax said that TCO is less important in governments than in the private sector.

"Government departments have fixed yearly budgets, and if you haven't spent the budget then you don't get the money the next year," said Bax.

Proprietary software is also perceived as a less risky option, according to Bax. "With an open-source system what happens in two years' time? What guarantees do you have that the system will still be there and still be developed?" said Bax.

Bax said the public sector holds the companies which develop IT systems accountable through strict contractual agreements. He believes this is an unresolved issue with open-source projects, where it can be unclear who should be held accountable for problems with the system.

However, he said that the issue of accountability was being addressed now that large companies, such as IBM, HP and Novell have put the weight behind Linux, according to Bax.

"The public sector has to trust the supplier community. There are lots of big companies supporting Linux, which gives us comfort," said Bax.

One big advantage for Linux is the issue of choice -- in many areas of technology there are various options within the proprietary market, but in the desktop space the lack of choice has driven interest in finding alternative suppliers. "The public sector has become more interested in operating systems because Microsoft has dominated the desktop," said Bax.

As previously reported byZDNet UK, some people feel that the best way to get a good deal with Microsoft is by saying that you're considering Linux, a tactic that Bax also takes seriously.

"Competition helps on price and innovation -- we can wave the Linux operating system at Microsoft and it brings prices down," said Bax.

One area when Bax sees open source as the clear winner over proprietary systems is in the development of e-voting systems, as it is vital that any technology used to run elections is seen as transparent.

"E-voting systems should be on an open-source platform so that people know there is nothing going on underneath which they don't know about. You can't have a system which isn't open source -- everyone has to right to see how votes are counted."