Back in 2010 the UK government pledged that open source would be given equal consideration as proprietary software when choosing new technology.
And while this sounds like a forward thinking policy, almost identical aspirations were first expressed in a government policy document back in 2002, and have cropped up repeatedly since. Meanwhile adoption of open source by government remains slow.
So what went wrong? Liam Maxwell, the government’s director of ICT futures, admits there is still “not enough” open source being used within government- and that there is still a long road ahead before open source will truly be on a level footing with proprietary software in government.
The government is waking up to open source – it’s just that significant barriers remain: "Open source software is not three guys in a shed anymore. There are a lot of misconceptions about open source but open source is the future model for delivering IT,” said Maxwell at the recent Intellect Regent Annual Conference in London.
"That's where the future is moving. It's moving to a new model of service and delivery, it's big data and big data is going to be open source. If we move to being one common government we need open source," he said.
And yet, there’s plenty more to do. ”It’s going to take a long time to work through,” he told TechRepublic.
Maxwell said the biggest barrier is that public bodies are locked into long-term IT deals which limit their ability to choose new software.
”People are still tied into seven year contracts doing something else,” Maxwell said, adding “the previous government signed up to some very long deals, one of the deal runs until 2017”. In some cases public bodies will not be able to choose new software packages until these deals have run their course.
Increasing the use of open source software in government
The low take-up of open source software is also the result of the government choosing major suppliers instead of smaller companies to carry out its IT work, according to Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius and head of the New Suppliers to Government working group, which aims to help open up the market for public sector IT contracts to small and medium sized businesses.
Recent estimates are that 80 per cent of the £20bn or so worth of IT work carried out by government each year is performed by just five major tech suppliers.
”The amount of open source software in government is negligible,” Taylor said.
”The open source problem with government and the SME problem with government are related issues, because the majority of solutions in the open source space are coming from smaller and medium sized players."
About 12 per cent of public sector contracts are awarded to SMEs, compared to a government target to award them one quarter of contracts.
Maxwell argues that the uptake of open source software will increase once the government pushes open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats across government, which will help prevent public bodies being tied to using a particular proprietary software package.
”If you focus on open standards, and really fixate on having open standards that you base your development on, that then allows the best solution in the market to come through,” he said.
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.