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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.