Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: UK Government Policy

Posted 25 Feb 2009 at 14:51 UTC (updated 25 Feb 2009 at 22:10 UTC) by lkcl Share This

The UK Government has made it clear that Open Source and Open Standards, with a focus on re-use of software development and deployment, is to clearly and unequivocably be part of the decision-making for UK Government I.T. procurement and contracting. Also part of the policy is a clear committment to engage with the Free Software community and to actively encourage the development of "Government-Class" Free Software products.

(tag keyword: #ukgovOSS at the cabinet office's request)

The foreword of the document tells us that Tom Watson, Minister for Digital Engagement, has his head screwed on straight. In the very first paragraph is a clear recognition and statement of the fact that Free Software has brought enormous benefits and cost reductions, simply through increased cooperation and transparency. The document is making clear that the U.K. Government wants "in" on these kinds of benefits.

Also clear from the foreword and the rest of the document is an implicit understanding that the previous U.K policy on Open Source (last formulated in 2004) may not have had the teeth required to take on any large corporations pathologically-hell-bent on guaranteeing maximisation of profits (at tax-payers' expense).

The new policy however spells out that the Government will not only be writing into new procurement contracts that it will expect to receive the full rights to the software being developed, but also, stunningly, it will actively seek the full rights to existing software under existing contracts.

It's worth noting that the policy is not to immediately release the software so acquired under Free Software Licences, but instead to evaluate "General Purpose" software acquired, and to release it as Free Software "if appropriate".

In other words, the U.K. Government is endeavouring to learn from the success of Open Source Community development, and foster a Department-wide culture akin to that of "Open Source". Civil servants are not themselves allowed by law to compete with the Public Sector. Given that they will be unable to actually perform any development themselves of the software acquired, in combination with the inevitable influx of Free Software Licensed source code as part of the obvious forward-accumulation of cost savings, this policy will slowly transform into one where the release of "acquired" software under Free Software Licenses becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Even where the software is utilised for Military purposes, it's still possible to release software under a Free Software License, as it's more often than not the case that the data is what is Classified. With a little creative thinking and the removal of a few words, it's reasonable to assume that much of military-developed software could be used for business or educational purposes (Military-developed software isn't as sexy as people think: much of it is simply organising or saving on paperwork and bureaucracy, as Military organisations face many of the same organisational issues as any standard business faces. They just have a bit more money to spend. usually).

It's worth noting, however, that due to the legal requirement that people working under the Official Secrets Act are not entitled to "own" their work, as they are acting wholely "as an extension" of their government, even modified GPL-licensed Free Software does not "escape" from being "Classified". In a straight fight between GPL and "Military Classification", the GPL loses outright. The reason is simple: with absolutely no rights allowed by law for individuals on a project, it's the Government that is the sole recipient, the sole distributor and the sole developer. Under such circumstances, the GPL is clear: there is no need to release source code, because there is no other party involved to whom the software has been distributed. About the only Free Software license that is potentially problematic and would conflict with a Military Classification is the Affero GPL which requires that the software be released, regardless of its distribution and deployment range.

The Way Forward

The following amazing committments have been made to us, UK Citizens and Free Software developers. The U.K Government will:

  • ensure that the Government adopts open standards and uses these to communicate with the citizens and businesses that have adopted open source solutions

  • ensure that open source solutions are considered properly and, where they deliver best value for money (taking into account other advantages, such as re-use and flexibility) are selected for Government business solutions. strengthen the skills, experience and capabilities within Government and in its suppliers to use open source to greatest advantage.

  • embed an open source culture of sharing, re-use and collaborative development across Government and its suppliers, building on the re-use policies and processes already agreed within the CIO Council, and in doing so seek to stimulate innovation, reduce cost and risk, and improve speed to market.

  • ensure that there are no procedural barriers to the adoption of open source products within government, paying particular regard to the different business models and supply chain relationships involved.

  • ensure that systems integrators and proprietary software suppliers demonstrate the same flexibility and ability to re-use their solutions and products as is inherent in open source.

In other words, for example, there will be no more OOXML, no more Microsoft Word or other formats. This is particularly important for a Government to do, as demonstrated by one U.K. Government-developed web site asking users to download a .doc and fill it in and email it back. I sent a stinking letter to them explaining that it would be necessary to purchase Microsoft Office, at a retail cost of £500, and then to throw away my existing machines and purchase replacements capable of running Microsoft Office - a further £500 - and was it the U.K. Government's policy to proactively support business cartels in this way, oh, and what about blind people? Having had a bit of a laugh, and thinking nothing further of what I wrote, I was stunned to hear back eight months later saying "we have updated our web site after receiving various feedback, please could you review it".

The U.K. government's new policy ("Action 8") therefore proactively makes such issues a thing of the past, on a government-wide scale, not just a small Department's Web Site, but right up to and including multi-billion-dollar NHS contracts spanning decades of development.

This section is also worth noting:

The Government will, wherever possible, avoid becoming locked in to proprietary software. In particular it will take exit, rebid and rebuild costs into account in procurement decisions and will require those proposing proprietary software to specify how exit would be achieved.

There's a phrase you often see in novels, where the characters are described as doing a "double-take" or they "can't believe their eyes", or "blink in surprise". Now I know what it actually feels like to "do a double-take".

This kind of wording makes it clear that there will be no "wool-eyes-pulling". "Sweetener-deals" such as the illegal provision of software at reduced cost with the intention of profitting at a later date will be out of the question (as was done to the London Metropolitan Police: the Free Software deployment of Desktop machines across thousands of workstations using OpenOffice, with which the users were quite happy, were replaced with Microsoft Systems, based on "guarantees of cheapness of price". Half-way through the deployment, after the Open Source Server Infrastructure had irrevocably been replaced by Microsoft servers, a blackmail call was placed with demands for further money to complete the installation, claiming that the much-reduced quote was only for the work done up until that point).

Later on, section 6.8 says that the U.K. Government will look to acquire the full rights to all existing proprietary software, so that it can have the same benefits afforded to it that it has with Free Software, but not only that, it says that where appropriate, "General Purpose" software that it acquires the rights to will then be released under Free Software licenses.

Without such pro-active decision-making on the part of the U.K. Government, it is clear that the U.K. Government's arm could be twisted so that I.T. suppliers could state that they have complied "to the letter" of the I.T. policy, by "evaluating" Open Source alternatives (Action 5: "Supplier Challenge, page 8) but concluding - always - that Open Source is inadequate.

By having a clear and unequivocable policy that the software must be procured and/or developed under an OGC (Open Government Council) OJEU clause (Action 9: "appropriate release of code", page 8) then the ball begins to roll, because the U.K. government will slowly acquire the rights to the software infrastructure used to govern the country, and will inexorably be able to build and improve on that infrastructure without being tied into a single monopoly supplier, directly through a contract or indirectly through a proprietary standard for whom there is only one supplier.

The most stunning committment of all is this, the last section of the document:

Action 10: Communication, Consultation and Review: Government will communicate this policy and its associated actions widely and will expand it as necessary. It will engage with the Open Source community and actively encourage projects that might, in due course, develop into "Government Class" products. It will keep the policy and progress on the actions under review, and report on progress publicly.

Remember that double-take thing? The U.K. government will actively encourage "Government Class products"? What can I say - er, Welcome to the Club? We take American Express? nonono, sorry, I mean, Fantastic! Great! Perhaps you should consider talking to Google, to learn from how it sets up the "Google Summer of Code" Programmes, and set up a U.K. Government Inititative "OCG SoC", with a view to sponsoring students and bright school children to work on developing "Government Class" capable products, with mentors from the Free Software community guiding their progress. The success of GSoc should leave you in no doubt as to the extent to which an OCG SoC programme will likewise be successful.

Also you should look at setting up a specific web site or web sites - an entire Sourceforge-like or SchoolForge site, with clear and immediately-accessible goals distinctly laid out. Extracting the text from google's cache because the site is down at the time of writing, SchoolForge's site states:

SchoolForge's mission is to unify independent organizations that advocate, use, and develop open resources for education. We advocate the use of open texts and lessons, open curricula, free software and open source in education.

In order for "Action 10" to be met, it is necessary to have a site which can be the focus of the efforts of Free Software development, accumulating the results and actively encouraging participation. Code.Google.com on its own does not quite fulfil these criteria, because:

  • although it provides individual projects with the tools to create and manage their source code, the site does not include discussion forums, expecting users to go to groups.google.com or other resources.
  • the per-project Wiki is more focussed on allowing developers to "make a few notes" than it is about presenting an attractive and informative [i.e. wikipedia-like] face to the rest of the world
  • google gives its own projects that use code.google.com or where google itself would benefit "high priority precedence", including better URLs and deploying documentation. the remaining projects are treated as second-class citizens.

Setting up a decent Free Software "Forge" that helps attract potential developers - and keeps them - is a tough call, and, as can be seen, even Google shies away from providing the full suite of functionality that is ultimately required. Sites like Sourceforge rely on advertising revenue to sustain them, whilst Google very wisely decided to keep code.google.com entirely ad-free and resource-focussed. Other than sponsorship logos, placing advertisements on a government-initiative-led web site would probably not be a good call: the wikipedia funding model would probably be best.

Royal Chartered Society for Software Architecture

This incredible document clearly shows that the U.K. government has the interests of its tax payers at heart, by clearly showing that it wants to learn from the lessons of Free Software development and Free Software Community cooperation and effectiveness. There is a second lesson that can be learned from historical review of a suitable formal body: the Royal Charted Society of Architects.

Architecture and the construction of buildings is an historically-recognised vital service to citizens, recognised as such by ensuring that there is a legal framework for the safe construction and adaptation of buildings. Where bringing in an Architect is not appropriate, "Building Regs" apply which are enforced at a Local Council level. So there is a specific framework for both small and largescale efforts.

What is the purpose of these efforts?

Well let's ignore the somewhat insane aspects, such as requiring that even in a change of the number of dwellings in a property (flats back to a house, or vice-versa) the ground floor must be "wheelchair" capable, requiring internal brick walls to be moved - no matter the cost - because the corridors of older houses are often only 80cm or 90cm, and the requirements for "wheelchair access" are 120cm - let's ignore these insane aspects for now, and concentrate on the relevant ones and the overarching goals instead of the bureaucratic political-correctness-gone-mad overlay that so often gets placed on top of well-meaning and initially well-thought-out ideas.

The purpose of the efforts of are to ensure:

  • Safety.
  • Aesthetics.
  • Value for money and cost-effectiveness, short and long-term.
  • Fitness for purpose, short and long term

For example, a new Public Building is constructed, or a new Olympic Stadium, and its expected lifespan could be thirty to fifty years, with renovations planned for and documented.

Not only is it blindingly obvious as to why there are procedures, rules, laws and regulations governing the construction of buildings, but it's been blindingly obvious for such a long time. RIBA gained its Royal Chartered status in 1837.

So the point is this: whilst Architecture in some form has been a vital part of humanity's development and progress for millenia, Software has only become a vital part of society in the past fifteen to twenty years. Yet the very same principles of safety, fitness for purpose and value for money both short and long term apply equally well to software as they do to architecture.

In fact, with the fiasco of the NHS twelve billion dollar budget predicted to reach a whopping £31 billion as just one example, let alone that of the unwelcome "National ID Card Database Bandwagon" on which so many Civil Departments have jumped, causing exponential spiralling costs as the software is rewritten each time to incorporate the new department's requirements, it should be clear as daylight that there's something drastically wrong.

Imagine, therefore, the role that a British Royal Chartered Institute for Software Architects could play, in mitigating the risks and the spiralling costs. A BRISA certified member would be legally held accountable for the completion of the project, or lose his Chartered Status.

Such responsibility immediately changes the whole ball-game. Suddenly there is a person who is required by law to put their foot down when it comes to irresponsible and ill-educated decision making. They are responsible for ensuring that the procurement phases are well-thought-out, well-structured, costed and planned. Without the BRISA member's approval, then just like for a large Building Project, the project cannot legally proceed.

With the BRISA member's assistance required by law, the Civil Servants' job is made infinitely easier.

It's often the case that Civil Servants are asked to plan I.T. systems which they are simply not equipped or well-enough-informed to ask for. It's often the case that a "dummy contract" phase is first set up - often by accident - where it is the Bidders who actually help the Civil Servants to crystallise their ideas, knowing full well that the initial bid can be dramatically underpriced, because they cannot "contradict" the Civil Servants by pointing out the flaws in their initial requirements (as to do so would lose them the opportunity to make money on the "real" contract, and making money is the sole exclusive purpose to which corporations are pathologically dedicated, through their Articles of Incorporation). So, the Bidders "help" the Civil Servants to "fulfil" the initial contract, where the actual bidding process itself shows up the flaws in the initial plan, and helps educate the Civil Servants.

In other words, Civil Servants are not knowledgeable of the "plan to do three versions" rule, because they are not Software Engineers. Their first version, therefore, is drastically under-budgeted, and the Bidders know damn well that that's the case. And they also know that when they have won the first bid, the use of proprietary software and proprietary standards gives them a 100% chance of winning the subsequent development rounds, which will be dramatically higher than the original contract. This alone is why the U.K's new policy on Open Source and Open Standards is so absolutely vital.

Not only that, but as the "ID Card" database example shows, the very fact that the Civil Servants ask, and a demo is produced, often results in "me-too" behaviour from other Departments. This is natural: Software development shows us that it is only when a product or a demo is placed into people's hands that they actually understand its implications and its uses.

The problem comes when the whole development process - higgledepiggledy or well-planned or otherwise - is kept "under wraps", with no transparency or explanations as to why the costs have spiralled out of control. A BRISA member would be responsible for ensuring that the documentation be made publicly available via Town or County Hall Web Sites, along with the actual source code where appropriate [again, the "Forge" principle comes to mind].

Documentation outlining exactly why certain design decisions were made, cross-referencing them to the recordings of the conversations or documents where the design requirements and functional specifications were first laid out and subsequently adapted. Digitally signed by the BRISA member as being a true and accurate record of the development of the project, as per legal requirement, under Royal Charter.

Transparency.

Learning from the Architecture Profession's shining example.

Summary

The U.K.'s new policy, to both retrospectively and proactively fit an Open Source internal culture on top of its I.T. procurement and development is just absolutely astounding. Concrete examples are cited of public money already saved through small-to-medium-scale deployment of Free Software, as an encouragement of the way forward, and a way to ensure that proprietary software "advocates" are well-informed.

The U.K. government is stating that it can clearly see that Free Software development principles of cooperation and transparency are beneficial and save money, and the U.K. Government is stating that it wants more of that, in no uncertain terms, when it comes to the infrastructure that is now running the Country and on which its citizens now so critically depend.

The U.K. Government is unequivocably stating that it wants to own the rights to the Software which runs the country (and for the software standards used to be "open"); that it wants to engage with the Free Software community to help develop that Software; and that it is prepared to back that up by making sure, where appropriate, that the software it acquires the rights to is then Free Software Licensed.

Effectively, the U.K. Government is putting its foot down and stating that it is unacceptable that its citizens pay to be taken advantage of by corporations, over something as complex, misunderstood and so absolutely vital as the Software that is used to run the Governance of the Nation.

The future will perhaps bring much bolder steps in the right direction, with not just policy documents but also a legal framework in place for the design, development and procurement of Software - perhaps even underpinned and safe-guarded by Royal Charter.


Catastrophic Failure Introspection, posted 25 Feb 2009 at 16:01 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

On talking to a friend, phil hands, he pointed out the benefits that having the rights to a government-funded software project brings. If a project, developed under corporate closed-source principles, turns out to be an absolute catastrophic failure, then it could be released under a Free Software License to Universities, for them to perform an analysis.

The Universities, who will be teaching the latest and greatest Software Architecture and Design principles, would be only too eager to get a chance to examine quotes real-world quotes software, to use their students and their expertise to take it apart with a clue-bat and produce a publicly available report that hypothetically lambasts EDS^H^H^Hthe hypothetical company that is hypothetically responsible for the hypothetical failure. hypothetically speaking, of course.

Lovely "Open Standards" example, posted 25 Feb 2009 at 16:06 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

This is what you get if you visit the netvibes.com web site, attempting to contact the Cabinet Office using Firefox 2.0. Hooray for proprietary AJAX web sites!


Error: missing ) after argument list
Source File: http://cdn.netvibes.com/js/c/Netvibes.js?v=689
Line: 6, Column: 205
Source Code:
smiley")}},replace:function(C){if(!Smiley.cache){Smiley.cache=new Array();for(var B in Smiley.list){Smiley.cache.push({regexp:new RegExp(B.escapeRegExp(),"g"),img:''+B+'

The 100 or so CSS stylesheet W3C standards violations have been omitted for brevity.

writetoreply.org, posted 25 Feb 2009 at 19:23 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

writetoreply.org #ukgovOSS is a site where policy documents are broken down into smaller sections so that people can comment on individual paragraphs.

i recommend anyone wishing to make individual comments on paragraphs of the original document make use of this resource.

Build it for 'The Machine' running it., posted 1 Mar 2009 at 03:18 UTC by ta0kira » (Apprentice)

Although I'm ignorant of the inner workings of the UK Government, I can say the US needs to follow the principle of this example. Speaking only of how it works in the US, this policy would probably start as an executive order or as statutory law and a committee of one or more agencies would be appointed to implement and carry out the specifics of the policy (as a part of the Code of Federal Regulations.) Going from one document that one person can read in a day to a set of laws enforceable in the courtroom leaves a lot of room for interpretation, however. Such policy must either explicitly supersede other policy that might contradict it or it must willingly concede to existing priorities if some sort of conflict arises. In other words, the law in the US is so extensive, as I presume the UK law is, that the ambiguous hierarchies of policy undoubtedly contain opportunity to disregard all or part of this policy in particular. It isn't always as simple as classification vs. obligation to make information public.

This is definitely a step in the right direction for any country, but it has a long way to go before the possibility of a government-sponsored FOSS utopia. Neither the government nor the public can lose sight of that. As with design of a major software system, one can't over-idealize its simplicity and expect it to just work out; that only leads to the perpetual short-sighted alterations that constantly plague US law every day. Bureaucracy is a complex machine; too complex for any one individual to understand. If the UK Government is smart about it, they'll design the implementation and enforcement of this policy in the same way a major open-source system would be designed. Such a policy can't succeed if left to the standard devices of bureaucracy, after all. Their first open-source endeavor needs to be a documentation project; the documentation of how to make such a policy succeed.

Kevin Barry

disregarding all but the first sentence..., posted 8 Mar 2009 at 15:47 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

In other words, the law in the US is so extensive, as I presume the UK law is, that the ambiguous hierarchies of policy undoubtedly contain opportunity to disregard all or part of this policy in particular.

from what i can gather, there was a policy set a while back "you must consider open source, unless conditions x, y, z, a, b, c, d, e, f, g ... apply".

... many civil departments simply blatantly ignored the conditions and set their software procurement policy based on the first sentence :)

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