Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

The UK government's open source mission

30 May 2012

The UK government has been attracting fans in the IT startup community in recent months thanks to its fairly aggressive use of Open Source software, and that's set to continue.

At the Open Government Summit today in Westminster, Mark O'Neill from the Government Digital Service - a specialist body within the Cabinet Office formed in August 2011 - reiterated the fact that the new site is being built entirely using open source platforms. He also noted that the very popular government epetitions site, which now receives about 40 signatures per minute, was built in 6 weeks for £60,000 (an additional £23,000 was spent on testing and first year hosting costs), using open source developers.

Tariq Rashid, lead architect at the Home Office, revealed that open source projects in his department have already saved £10 million over five years, and suggested that government might consider spot checks of projects to ensure that the open source option has been adequately considered. As Rashid noted, achieving greater use of Open Source relies on it being discussed much earlier than the procurement stage of a policy - it needs to be an option in play at the design stage.

The position of open software in the UK is at a potential inflection point,though, with the closing of the government's Open Standards Consultation on June 4th. With none of the civil servants able to comment ahead of the report, the Summit's organisers brought in technology writer Glyn Moody to make many of the points the open source community has been making: that the government has been too close to big IT suppliers, and that RF (Royalty Free) standards are essential to protect the usage of open source software in government, something that would not be guaranteed if FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) standards are adopted.

But even with open standards, sources, and a vibrant developer community, there still remains the challenge of turning great ideas into actionable policies. According to Alex Butler, a former director at DirectGov (the predecessor to there's often a gap between the ideas of developers and what can be achieved by the civil service now, and be retained as a legacy. The answer, she suggested, is that the UK needs 'intrapreneurs' within government, rather than always resorting to outside developers for fresh ideas.

And it's not just processes and technology platforms that will deliver truly open government, as Andy Williamson pointed out. The UK government also needs to be ready to use technology to open up the political process. If developers can collaborate in a radically open and accountable way, perhaps policymakers can aim to do the same.

Image: Zaizi