Good Governance - Effective use of IT

Written evidence submitted by Open Source Consortium (IT 38)

Summary

Government does not exist in isolation from the rest of the economy: regarding IT it is particularly pervasive. No decision it takes leaves the rest of the economy unaffected.

There are certain "first principles", not immediately obvious, that should be a reflected on by HMG as a requirement. These first principles, over time, will be a boost to the market and enable permanent savings for the taxpayer within public infrastructure, provide a good basis for innovation in IT enabled services and limit the scope for any adverse effects on the rest of the economy arising from externalities associated with public sector IT decisions (strategy, policy or purchase):

ñ separation of data from applications

(addresses questions 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11)

ñ adherence to open, unencumbered standards for data exchange

(addresses questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9)

ñ scrutiny of policy for adverse effects, [DN Govt OSS licence, fast stream recruitment, BECTA report, licence management, CD-ROM]

(addresses questions 1, 7)

ñ technology neutrality in procurement specifications, focusing on requirements not products

(addresses question 12)

Overall, these first principles collectively enable Government to exploit all aspects of the "post bureaucratic age" (q.5) by enabling unexpected sources of better use of IT, increase the likelihood of programme success (q.2) and through enabling market access help adapt public sector IT adapt to the 'age of austerity' (q.9) and improve procurement (q.12)

Detail

Through at least three administrations [1] the Government has stressed the importance it places upon IT as being a critical part of:

ñ the public sector infrastructure

ñ delivery of modern public services

ñ the wider economy generally

Central and Local Government are significant players in the market for IT, as specifiers, purchasers and influencers. As a block, they are by far the largest purchaser of IT goods and services in the UK. To coin a phrase, if they sneeze everyone else in the UK catches a cold:

ñ Every decision taken by Government can directly influence both the supply side and the demand side of the IT market

ñ Choice of internal infrastructure can affect economy-of-scale pricing elsewhere in the economy

ñ Decisions affecting public facing services can affect business decisions of IT suppliers and their potential customers.

Separation of data from applications

The easiest way of discussing this is to focus on office productivity software (documents, presentation, spreadsheets, databases).

In October 2010 the Department for Health launched a consultation the NHS Information Revolution [2] . They helpfully provided a consultation response document for one to download and use. However it had been designed with a proprietary office suite and contained embedded software specific to the application, no doubt in order to make it more easy to process the responses.

Unfortunately, even though the document was in ".doc" format, a proprietary format but relatively easy to open in any application, the embedded code made it difficult-to-impossible to use an alternative office application to write a consultation response.

This reinforces the perception if not the requirement that one must use specific software to communicate with government and makes it more difficult to develop a market for computers based on alternatives.

Moreover the alternatives (at least five) are all available to the end-user, legally, free-of-charge, in contrast to licences for the chosen document format.

The use of embedded software in data is prevalent even between public sector bodies, as an enquiry the OSC received this week demonstrates.

This problem can and does happen throughout the public sector infrastructure. For example when the "government gateway" was launched early in the last decade it only worked with specific proprietary software – without that software it was impossible to register in order to use online services [3]

Adherence to open, unencumbered standards for data exchange

Again this is most easily explained by reference to office productivity suites. There are two ISO standards for office productivity suites: IS 26300 and 29500.

IS 26300 is more usually known as "ODF" This format has been developed in the open by OASIS [4] and is supported by multiple software creators [5] . These organisations (including large IT multinationals ) operate on a variety of business models, however they all acknowledge the importance of interoperability.

In order to ensure that the data contained in documents, spreadsheets etc., is fully accessible in any software application, these organisations engage in "plugfests" [6] to strength test the ability of their software to work well with each other.

These plugfests occur regularly, with the fifth one occurring in the UK in February 2011 [7]

Support for IS 29500 is less clear, with industry experts unsure that the standard even has a future [8] .

Support for IS 26300 across Government appears to be honoured mainly in the breach. Further, Government departments are increasingly adopting a proprietary format [9] that can be difficult to open and certainly difficult to ensure fidelity unless one uses the associated proprietary application. Not only does this reinforce the way Government departments obtain and use software, it creates an externality on those that interact with Government departments and on businesses or other entities that seek to supply computers to those users based on alternatives.

Again this issue is not new, nor limited to office productivity suites [10]

PICT, the body that supports IT for use in Parliament has long since grasped the wider issue [11] , recognising the importance of choosing data formats that support longevity. According to an FOI request PICT imposes the following constraints:

ñ Non-open standard formats should not be used to deliver content

ñ Proprietary components or 3rd party plug-ins should not be used

ñ The project should meet the requirements for digital preservation.

ñ The solution should reach the widest possible audience

It's not that the Government doesn't understand the public policy importance of standards [12] and the benefits to economy arising from standardisation [13]

It is not only Acts of Parliament that need to be preserved digitally: all Land Registry documents have been "dematerialised" [14] with the potential challenges neatly demonstrated in a BBC News story [15]

Increasingly a way to reach the widest possible audience is to use FOSS (which focuses on ODF) as it is available free-of-charge [16] and can run a wide range of older and lower cost hardware thus enabling digital inclusion [17] , (now and in the future).

Scrutiny of policy for adverse effects

Clearly the purchasing decisions for public sector infrastructure can affect the supply side of the industry directly. However policy and practice relating to putting public services on-line as well wider policy and practice can affect the supply side both directly and indirectly.

The government gateway is now "fixed" however using on-line tax services is still not technology neutral.

The Government is using a series of incentives and obligations to require firms to file tax returns on-line. For employers, HMRC helpfully provides a CD-ROM containing guidance and software calculators. However unless the employer uses a computer with a specific operating system much of the CD-ROM is useless.

A business to business offer promoting the advantages of using computers supplied with a different operating system is hampered by the disadvantage created by the relative difficulty of using the HMRC CD-ROM unless one uses the required operating system.

The situation with on-line benefits is even more stark.

The initiative recently launched by Martha Lane Fox to provide "cheap" computers for the digitally excluded [18] is going to encounter a roadblock almost from the off should any of them attempt to access benefits on-line [19] because the service "is not currently available using Macs or other Unix based systems [20] even though you may be able to input information"

Applying to join the fast-stream of the Civil Service [21] (requires registration) begins with an online pre-qualification test. If not the case now, two years ago potential candidates were advised that the on-line test might not work properly unless one used computers using specific versions of a specific operating system – candidates were advised against using alternatives.

The Cabinet Office has reasserted a commitment to using "more open source solutions wherever possible" [22] While there are many open source licences to choose from, most software is released using a limited number of licences which are well understood with several tested in litigation, in Europe [23] if not in the UK

For code produced in Government projects it would have been possible to use existing well understood licences acceptable to software creators that do not fully endorse or embrace FOSS [24] . Instead, the Open Government Licence (OGL) was produced [25] . To the credit of those involved the licence was discussed on a developers list however concerns were ignored.

Technology neutrality in procurement specifications, focusing on requirements not products

As BECTA reported in 2010 on the use of Management Information systems in schools "many schools will want to procure a collection of integrated modules from a single supplier, and there can be advantages in that approach. The key is to require that the supplier offering the bundle of interrelated products is fully committed to an interoperability approach which will ensure that the contracting authority is not locked into that supplier for other areas of functionality in the longer term." [26]

Procurements should be technology neutral however, once a organisation is using technology that is not committed to full interoperability it can be easier to carry on with the same provider. The OSC received the following invitation to tender via our web form

January 2011


[1] “Government Direct” pre 1997; e-government and the e-economy, Knowledge Economy, Transformational Government, Digital Britain 1997 – 2010 and current initiatives

[2] http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Consultations/Liveconsultations/DH_120080

[3] http://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/05/31/eenvoys_office_defends_windowsonly_portal/

[4] http://www.oasis-open.org/home/index.php (along with many other open standards)

[5] Producing: Abiword, Caligra, LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Star Office, Symphony,

[6] http://blog.ce.org/index.php/2010/03/12/whats-a-plugfest/ (originally associated with hardware now a term used for software too)

[7] http://odfplugfest.co.uk/

[8] http://www.adjb.net/post/Microsoft-Fails-the-Standards-Test.aspx

[9] .docx, .pptx, .xlsx

[10] http://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/06/28/uk_govt_new_encryption_system/

[11] http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/public-sector/2010/12/banned-in-whitehall-the-techno.html

[12] http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/innovation/standardisation/bsi

[13] http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/innovation/standardisation/economic-benefits

[14] http://www.skipton.co.uk/mortgages/about_skipton_mortgages/jargonBuster.aspx

[15] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/2534391.stm

[16] http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/shopping/free-office-software

[17] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/technology-12205412

[18] Reference 17 ibid

[19] http://www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice/need.asp

[20] e.g. Linux

[21] https://candidate.faststream.gov.uk/faststream2011/(v4bvxu45zpoibl45dcxuxi55)/login.aspx

[22] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2010-09-14b.14369.h#g14369.r0

[23] http://gpl-violations.org/

[24] http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/resources/apache2.xml

[25] http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/government-licensing/the-framework.htm

[26] http://localauthorities.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=pf&catcode=ls_pict_04&rid=18580