Tories: Government is falling behind in open source

The government should encourage the use of open source in the public sector by reforming its procurement practices, according to the Conservative party
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The Conservative party has criticised the UK government over its lack of implementation of open-source technology.

Government departments have failed to capitalise on the software as a resource, even though reports from its agencies have looked at the feasibility of open source and recommended its use, a statement from the office of the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, said on Tuesday.

"The UK government is falling far behind," the statement said. "Too much taxpayers' money is being wasted as a result of flawed procurement, risk-adverse bureaucracy and a lack of incentives for cutting costs."

In the statement, the Conservatives released recommendations drawn up by Mark Thompson, a lecturer in information systems at Cambridge University's Judge Business School. Thompson was asked by the Conservatives in March to assess how open source could be given a "level playing field" in government IT procurement.

Thompson suggested modifying procurement processes to break major IT projects down into smaller, simpler components. This would allow smaller businesses to bid, and so increase the number of companies able to tender. He said this would stimulate open-source use in government.

"It isn't rocket science — it's about creating a modern and efficient procurement system," said Thompson in the Conservative statement. "Governments and companies around the world are making use of open-source software, and we could achieve much more here in the UK."

In their statement, the Conservatives questioned why open source is not more prominent in government departments, given that five years have elapsed since two official reports into its use were published. In 2004, the Office of Government Commerce released a report, titled "Open Source Software Trials in Government", which said that open source was "a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software". A number of reports from the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), including one produced in 2004, have highlighted the feasibility of open-source use in schools.

A push for open standards will also help pave the way for open source, Thompson said.

Writer and comedian Stephen Fry, a supporter of the use of open-source products, welcomed Thompson's recommendations.

"Lo, our sheep that was lost is now found," said Fry. "This is good news. Aside from anything else, [think of] the money that could be saved in government: schools, hospitals, civil service, defence, by choosing open source and free operating systems and software. It's a wave that's rolling over Europe and America, and it's only right that we in Britain should ride that wave too. I think politicians from all sides should endorse the aim for public systems to be run on free and open-source software."

The Conservatives said the recommendations by Thompson would now be considered by the Shadow Treasury team for inclusion in party policy.

Mark Taylor, chief executive of open-source vendor Sirius, also welcomed Thompson's recommendations. "Open procurement, open standards and open source are the keys to redeeming the UK public sector's IT track record and to renewing Britain's IT industry," he said.

The Office of Government Commerce, the agency that monitors government procurement, had not responded to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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