Why there's no quick fix to get open source into government

A Whitehall insider explains why take-up of open source has been so slow in government - and how difficult it will be to increase its deployment.

The UK government has been talking about increasing its use of open source software since 2004 - yet adoption still remains low.

What's the hold-up? It seems that Whitehall IT may need to undergo systemic change for open source to be given fair consideration by government.

Deploying an open source package for daily use in government is not as simple as picking one piece of software over another, Tariq Rashid, lead architect for the Home Office told the Open Gov Summit in London yesterday.

For departments to have true choice over the software they use, flexibility needs to be built in to their IT infrastructures from the bottom up.

"People are perceiving this as a procurement stage issue, it's something you do when you're about to buy something," he said.

"Actually, it's a little bit earlier than that. If you've designed your infrastructure and foundation layer to be flavoured in a way that excludes choice and the benefits of chopping and changing software components...when it comes to the procurement you haven't got a choice."

The difficulty facing many government IT departments is that, after years of outsourcing the design and running of the IT, they lack the skills to reshape their infrastructures.

"There are departments that have outsourced not just the operation of IT but also outsourced the thinking and the technical direction," he told TechRepublic

"There are some very big questions about 'What is our capability to do that kind of thinking?'. The key question is, in order to do some of the stuff that we want to do, 'Do we need to redraw the line between ourselves and our IT suppliers?'."

Rashid said that open source adoption is also being held back by attitudes that it "can't be supported" or is "inherently insecure", which he said persist across government and its major suppliers.

The UK government is lagging behind those of other nations such as Brazil, France, Germany and Spain, Rashid said, who have made much greater progress in deploying open source software.

What's important he said is not increasing the use of open source, but ensuring that government departments are in a position to choose the most efficient software for the job.

"Our objective is not to have a target for the use of open source in government, our objective is not to have a year-on-year increase, our objective is to best exploit the opportunities that are out there," he said.

"It's not good enough not to know what open source is and what the opportunities are."

Figures published by the Cabinet Office recently revealed the inefficiencies of government software purchasing, with Whitehall holding six million unused software licences and only able to reuse 668 of its 18.5 million licences.

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Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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