Open Source In Local Government

Monday, August 17, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Public Sector, Standards, Technology

My old colleagues at Public Sector Forums have launched a new site with a BuddyPress engine — UK Gov OSS. This is a community (i.e. non-official) site set up to share information and ideas on open source and open standards for government in the UK. From the sounds of it, it is therefore aimed mostly at local and central government, although like many things of this nature, there will be a lot of it which is appropriate for other public sector organisations (police, health service, fire service and so on).

Why not pop along to register? I’m currently on there twice (the older one having been when looking at the set up: the newer one has my ‘web chemist’ logo).

And one of the first things on this site is a report on Open Source in Local Government, which I’ve been having a bit of a look through. This was based on survey results provided by 168 councils between November and December 2008…

There are certainly some interesting ‘headlines’ to pull out of this — 64% believe their organisation need to increase their use of open source, as opposed to only 7% disagreeing (the remainder being ‘neutral’ or ‘don’t know’). This does not in itself mean that local government are likely to increase their use of open source, as it is entirely possible that techies might want to use open source, but if the key decision makers are not in that 64% agreeing, then it’s not likely to make much difference.

It’s also apparent how Microsoft-led councils are: 98% run on Windows (83% on Windows XP alone); 95% on Microsoft Office and I rather suspect a lot of local authorities are still using — and forcing their employees to use — Internet Explorer 6, which is why we need sites like IE6 no more to try and encourage people and corporates to upgrade to a decent browser where possible.

It’s also interesting to see which open source systems are being used — perhaps not surprisingly it’s Apache leading the way, followed by MySQL, followed by people using Linux (mostly alongside other operating systems), followed by a pretty sharp drop-off.

The pro-open source responses continued, with 50% of councils indicating that the proprietary licencing costs they paid were too high, with more than three-quarters thinking the councils were too reliant on proprietary software suppliers. Of course, like I said earlier, whether this actually means anything will change will rather depend upon who has been filling in this survey and in general whether procurement methods are properly set up to consider the use/development of open source alternatives to proprietary products. You can want open source as much as you like, but if the procurement process is set up to exclude it, you’ll never embrace it.

So if everyone thinks open source software is great, then why is it used so little, despite being backed by the UK Government? Well, it would appear that it is considered risky (which is frankly bizarre, when compared to some suppliers I’ve dealt with in my time), that there is a lack of awareness about it (really? if IT management aren’t aware of open source, I’d suggest that they maybe aren’t doing their jobs properly), and that the corporate culture is against it, meaning that you don’t get buy in from senior management.

One of the other reasons I believe open source doesn’t get used it because of the departmental ‘silo’ nature of many local government organisations. If Department A provide housing services and rely on Department B for their IT services, Department A can’t have an open source solution unless Department B are prepared to release enough developers for enough time to customise the system appropriately. And that’s not going to happen if Departmnet B can just persuade Department A to shell out for a proprietary product instead. IT Services either needs to have a team which can be called upon corporately to do this sort of thing, or they need to be able to calculate and charge the appropriate budgetary costs back to the user department, otherwise there’s no reason why they should encourage the use of open source…

And there are two other illustrative reasons which were quoted:

‘We’ve used open source in the past. In general users were hostile as they merely see it as the organisation attempting to cut corners by not giving them ‘proper’ (ie Microsoft) tool set. As an IT manager I also feel there is a degree of risk as you are at the mercy of technical evangelists who can up sticks and leave you without support’.

‘Senior IT Management seem to be locked into thinking that only expensive, badly-integrated platforms incurring massive and complicated installation projects are worth considering. ‘It must be good because they charge so much!’

Open or Closed — Final Report

And most importantly, what people and councils need before they will commit are examples of other people having done it successfully, demonstrating cost savings (or at the very least what indicative costs can be over a five year period).

I’m in favour of the use of open source. I’m not necessarily saying councils and public sector organisations should look to scrap their proprietary financial, payroll, CRM and CMS systems. What I am saying is that for certain projects or applications, open source-based solutions may be the best option, so councils should look to:

  • Ensure that their procurement system is not set up to automatically discount or disadvantage open source solutions
  • Ensure that the Council’s IT department can re-charge its time to other departments accordingly, so if an open source solution is chosen it doesn’t just save money for the user department and leave the IT department out of pocket — it saves money for the user department but ensures the IT department aren’t financially ‘punished’ for the extra time investment necessary to go down the open source route

And if councils are prepared to make these changes, I’m sure that — with the right staff or the right guidance — they will find that over time they are saving money and getting systems more customised to their individual needs.

Open Source is not the only way forward, but it is one of the ways forward, and we should be sure not to close off the path.

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2 Comments to Open Source In Local Government

  1. paul canning says:

    August 18th, 2009 at 8:18 am

    ‘my ‘web chemist’ logo’

    Oh that’s what it is. I always thought that was either something you did in your spare time or harking back to your youth :]

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