Shadow chancellor slams government over open source

Conservative MP George Osborne has called for widespread adoption across industry, while pointing out the software failings of central government
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has criticised the government over its apparent lack of support for open-source software.

He said that many of the world's multinational corporations are developing open-source software strategies, and that "far-sighted governments are also taking advantage of this trend".

But Osborne said the case in the UK was very different. Speaking on Thursday at a conference organised by the Royal Society for the Arts, he said: "In recent months, Conservative MPs have put down parliamentary questions that reveal most central government departments make use of no open-source software whatsoever".

The problem is "the cultural change has not taken place in government", and, within government, the balance is weighted against open source. "There isn't a level playing field for open-source software," he said.

"Too many companies are frozen out of government IT contracts, stifling competition and driving up costs," he said. "Not a single open-source company is included in Catalyst, the government's list of approved IT suppliers." One of the problems is that "a government IT system is incompatible with other types of software, which stifles competition and hampers innovation".

He condemned the "litany of IT projects that have collapsed or spiralled over budget", and said: "It's clear that this has meant billions of pounds wasted and public service reform being hampered".

The shadow chancellor went on to applaud "software that's developed collectively", and he criticised the government's strategy of sticking to the major vendors. The result is that "unlike traditional proprietary software, users can access the source code, making it possible for them to tailor the software to their needs and make constant iterative improvements".

Osborne also set out the Conservative party's strategy on technology, pointing to "three pillars" on which the Conservatives intend to build — equality of information, social networking and open source. He said that they would enable a future government to "recast the political settlement for the digital age".

Osborne was keen to explain that he saw open source not just as software, but as a concept of collaboration. And he was careful to avoid implying that to support open source was to condemn proprietary vendors such as Microsoft. "Adopting open-source software in government departments does not necessarily mean having to stop using Microsoft products," he said.

In response to Osborne's speech, a Microsoft spokesperson said: "The shadow chancellor raises an important issue and we look forward to engaging with him. All software products carry benefits and costs. Governments should select software based on its merits and not based simply on its development and licensing model, as they risk making incorrect choices." 

The spokesperson continued: "Procurement should be based on what best meets their needs. Functionality, performance, security, value and the cost of ownership of software should be the priority, not categorical preferences for open-source software, commercial software, free software or any other software development model."

One of the latest governments to contemplate open source is Cuba. Cuban interest has excited free-source advocate Richard Stallman, who has spent considerable time supporting local efforts.

Within the UK, Osborne's thoughts are at least partly shared by John Pugh, a Liberal Democrat MP who is campaigning for greater use of open-source software in schools. Pugh brought an early day motion on the subject in November, which has subsequently won the support of 129 other MPs.  

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