Where does open source fit in the new digital government?

had his appeal denied, the result some would say of a conspiracy at the highest levels of world government, it’s perhaps ironic that across the road the Open Gov Summit was discussing open source in government. Assange, regardless of how you feel about the man personally, has played an important role in bringing the need for greater transparency and openness to governments and highlighted how digital can make governments more accountable. So how are they fairing? The short answer is ‘not that great’. There’s plenty of room for improvement if today was anything to go by. The UK is seen as a leader in open government and particularly around open data and rightly so. But there is a difference between being in the lead and being good at it and we would do well to remember that. Fortunately there is a lot of enthusiasm for doing more and for doing it better. Tariq Rashid from the Home Office is clearly a believer in more open data/source/services/standards… you get the idea… but do they live the dream? Not really. His contribution to the day was filled with lots of good intent and passion but he gave little indication that the real culture change that’s actually needed is happening with the scale and momentum required. He’s a man who clearly gets that it’s more than a procurement issue, it’s one of design and architecture. But equally there’s a spectre looming behind these words that makes you realise what a mammoth job lies ahead. We need evangelists in government and those who are outside and see the importance of the issue have to back them and support them, or they will fail. The size of the task was evident in a question about the cost of replacing legacy systems with open source. It quickly became lear that the UK government has never, or so it seems, considered the cost of de-commissioning as an exit cost (so, belonging in the total cost of ownership calculation for the legacy system), rather than as a cost of entry. This ommission skews the argument against replacing incumbent legacy systems even though they are closed off and offer poor value for money. It privileges the incumbent systems integrators who are holding government (and therefore, by deafault, us) to ransom. The shining light in the UK government is the Government Digital Service and procurement head Mark O’Neill gave us all the right words and a picture of government transitioning to a new way. About needing a fundamental shift in culture there was no doubt and the need to start asking the basic questions about what it is that government is doing comes across strong. This is good stuff and they have delivered, but they are a small team and, as Alex Butler, said later, what happens when the priorities change and the current evangelists move on? Will innovation have been embedded by that point or are these acupuncture needles in the leg of a terminally ill elephant? GDS sees its job as building platforms for others – open source (how many governments publish their source code and encourage reuse?), open data and APIs to make it all work for third parties. They like to work with small development companies not the big systems integrators. Why? Because the big companies don’t get it. But it was clear too from today that these behmoths of IT get one thing – that open source is a threat to their revenue models and at least some of the big players are lobbying strongly against open standards and new digital models. Does the GDS model work? Yes, it can. Parliament’s e-Petitions system, quoted at in excess of £500,000 by Parliamentary ICT cost them £60,000 to develop, plus another £23,000 for security testing and hosting. And O’Neill gave us an example of reviewing public feedback in a way that simple changes could be reviewed, done and rolled out without the need for bureaucratic change control processes. Whilst I’ve made the case for Parliament needing to take ownership of the e-Petitions process on numerous occasions in the past, I’m wholly supportive of using GDS to develop and host the service (simply put, without them e-Petitions would not have happened). Today showed us that we’ve got a very long way to go. We mustn’t fall into the trap of becoming technologically deterministic either; it’s about people first, process second… then data, systems and apps. But there’s a rising tide supporting openness across government and, for me at least, open source ties in neatly with open standards and open data to increase transparency and build trust. It also fits with my preferred approach to agile government, after all open source can be a very good way to deliver better, more responsive government for a lot less. This matters as the model we have now is as financially unviable as it is unethical.]]>

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