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Dr Mark Thompson is lecturer in Information Systems at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University. This week he delivered to George Osborne his report on delivering better value for money in government IT procurement.

Computer journalists calling me in the office, lobbyists bombarding me with emails – that’s the price you pay for getting involved with politics, as I did when the report I wrote for George Osborne on open source software was published earlier this week. I’ve got to say though – it was definitely a price worth paying.

George had asked me to write a report on open source software in the run-up to his speech on open source politics to the Royal Society of the Arts. He wanted to know how government IT procurement could be made more efficient – and how to go about creating a level playing for open source software. As someone who’s long been appalled by the waste and inefficiency of government IT procurement, I was more than happy to accept George’s invitation.

Before I go any further, I should probably just explain what open source software is – and why it matters. It’s software that’s typically developed by a community of developers, and whose source code is made openly available to licensed users, making it possible for them to tailor the software to their needs and make continuous iterative improvements. This not only makes for software that is often cheaper than traditional proprietary software, but it is often more secure and more effective too.

So – what did my report conclude?

First, that there manifestly isn’t a level playing for open source when
it comes to UK government IT contracts. Only a tiny proportion of
government IT systems are open source – and no wonder, given that the
Government’s list of approved IT suppliers doesn’t include a single
open source provider. And this isn’t because open source is somehow
unsuitable for the public sector. As my report shows, this innovative
approach to IT is being used by forward looking governments across the
world. Just look at Japan, where the government is moving its entire
payroll system over to an open-source platform, cutting operating costs
by half. Or look at the Spanish region of Extremadura, which has saved
over £10 million by switching 70,000 desktop computers in its schools
to open source software.

What’s incredible is that some people in government seem to understand
this. In 2004, an Office of Government Commerce report found concluded
that: “Adoption of open source software can generate significant
savings in hardware and software costs for infrastructure
implementation, and reduce the licensing costs and hardware refresh
requirements for desktop implementation." And yet the government’s
overall policy remains the same – stick to what you know, even if it
costs more and isn’t as effective.

My report’s second conclusion is that creating a level playing field
for open source in government isn’t rocket science. What’s needed are
‘open standards’. These open standards enable different types of
software – whether open source or conventional – to work side by side.
Open standards also mean that modular components to be bolted together
– by creating a common ‘language’ for government IT systems. 

The fantastic side effect of open standards is that they mean the
government can follow best practice in the private sector, and split up
large IT contracts into smaller elements. This opens up the procurement
system to more companies, including innovative start-ups – because
there are only a handful of massive IT companies in that are capable of
delivering multi-billion pound contacts. This significantly increases
the range of companies that are capable of bidding for and delivering
IT contracts, and increases the competitive tension and scope for
innovative solutions. But what does all this mean? It means that the
government would never again need to sign another IT contract worth
more than £100 million. So no more IT white elephants like the
ruinously expensive and ineffective NHS supercomputer.

When implemented carefully as part of a well-managed transformation
programme with strong IT leadership, this approach can reduce the risk
of project failure and can deliver significant value for money
benefits. £650 million worth of value for money benefits every year, to
be precise.

So – what happens next? Hopefully, the current Government will take
heed of my report and get on with creating a level playing field for
open source. After all, £650 million a year is surely too much to be
sniffed at. But if they don’t, I’m confident that the Conservatives
will take this agenda forward, and deliver a level playing field for
open source. And that’s why, in my opinion, spending this week getting
pestered by journalists and lobbyists is a price worth paying.

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