Time to turn open-source words into action

Without firm targets, progress is likely to be limited.

Since early 2004, it has been the government's stated policy to use open-source software in the public sector wherever possible, as long as it offers the best value for money.

To date, the policy has had little impact. So will the latest tweaks to its open-source action plan make a difference?

Software is "open-source" when the source code is freely available to be viewed, shared or changed -- things that you can't do with conventional proprietary software. Crucially, open-source is also the cheaper option in many cases.

So how good is the government's record on using open-source so far?

In its latest action plan, it gives three key examples of how it has increased its use of open-source. First, it says that over 25 per cent of secondary schools use the Linux operating system on at least one computer: small beer, given that the government first published its policy on open-source in 2004.

Second, the series of National Health Service databases known as "Spine" uses an open-source operating system. And third, Birmingham City Council has been rolling out open-source software across its library services since 2005.

These last two instances would be more compelling if they didn't also serve to show just how few projects there have been to date.

Yet according to one open-source executive, the situation may be improving. John Powell, co-founder and CEO of the British open-source content management firm Alfresco, told me last year: "The UK has always been something of an open-source laggard. But things are definitely changing fast, not least since the government published that policy document."

 

Who's in charge?

Others are less optimistic. Commenting on the most recent tweaks to the action plan, Steve Shine at the open-source database firm Ingres said: "From the outset, we have commended the UK government for its comprehensive and balanced approach. However, we still struggle to see how these latest changes will have much impact, as this policy is not being enforced.

"These latest changes still leave it unclear as to which part of the government will be responsible for enforcing these policies. We look forward to the Chief Information Officer clarifying this vital point as soon as possible.

"In our experience of working with government IT suppliers," Shine continued, "the money that has been recouped so far from open-source initiatives is just a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds that could be saved if the government takes a hard line on IT procurement, which could easily equate to several pennies being carved off the basic rate of tax."

The government should be congratulated for keeping its open-source action plan up to date. Now, with the latest tweaks, particularly around what its policy means in the era of "cloud computing", let's see if its open-source words can speak as loud as its proprietary actions.

But a problem remains: so far, the government has set no clear targets for the increased adoption of open-source software.

In the action plan, it states that it "will actively and fairly consider open-source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions", that "procurement decisions will be made on the basis on the best value-for-money solution to the business requirement", and that "the government will expect those putting forward IT solutions to develop where necessary a suitable mix of open-source and proprietary products to ensure that the best possible overall solution can be considered".

But one wonders whether, without any firm targets, there is likely to be much progress with adopting open-source software in the public sector.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and the editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder