UK public open source falls short of promise

The UK's coalition government made a fanfare for open source after coming to power in May 2010. The Conservative Party, lead coalition partner, had spent two years weaving open source software into its proposal for government. It planned an ambitious programme of disruptive reform. It aimed to privatize government administration. Its Big Society and Post-Bureaucratic ideas articulated its desire to break up what it believed where stale, inflexible public institutions and replace them with a market-based 'ecosystem'. It adopted open source as an instrument of this reform. It would be one of the means by which it would break up the major computer systems that formed the bedrock of the state – the infrastructure used to collected taxes, distribute wealth and run regional administrations, health and social services.

More than three years on, as the open source tranche of this policy begins to unfurl, it is necessary to ask what interest the coalition had in open source software for its own sake; and how much less a priority was this than its utility for disrupting state institutions. This study will show how the incoming market-led ecosystem has limited interest in open source. It therefore raises the possibility that open source may have a limited useful life in the UK public sector.

“Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.” “Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.”
Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan
Labour government open source policy February 2009, January 2010
Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use:
Government Action Plan
Coalition government Open Source Policy
April 2012

The coalition's open source initiative lost momentum quickly after it came to power. The government has nevertheless been working on policies that would, theoretically at least, create what it calls a level-playing field for open source software. It also made a momentous decree, in the Cabinet Office's April 2013 Digital Service Manual, that government must henceforward make any software developments open source. Yet this instruction had significant provisos; and central government departments apparently received it with the same indifference as they had with open source policy for the last 10 years. It has been almost 14 years since the UK adopted an open source policy, and nearly 10 years since it first declared a preference to procure open source systems. Policy remains much as it was in 2004. The public software landscape remains much the same as well. The fortunes of open source have, on the face of it, changed little in a decade. There are however more fundamental developments taking place.

Scrap, chop, replace

The UK public sector has a vast “legacy” software estate for which it owns the intellectual property – a great asset, arguably, for any government seeking to promote open source software. The coalition government sought to promote open source software. Yet rather than open source this legacy estate, it ordered for it to be scrapped. The Cabinet Office November 2012 Digital Strategy told departments to replace legacy systems with “digital services”. This meant replacing government services administered by civil servants using computer systems with self-service web and mobile software applications. Existing services that faced the chop were conventionally large transactional systems running large departments operated under large contracts with large suppliers. By making these services “Digital by Default”, Cabinet Office expected to automate them, with redundancies of up to 80 per cent. It imagined state institutions would make routine use of open APIs (application programming interfaces) and third party software services in building a digital government administration. The digital plan recast the software ecosystem imagined in its manifesto for government, which it had written into the ICT Strategy it pursued for its first two and a half years in power.

It is anticipated digital savings will primarily be made in:

  • 78% Staff costs
  • 12% Accommodation
  • 7% Printing & postage
  • 4% IT and equipment

The evidence from specific case studies supports these findings. The Driving Standards Agency online channel for booking practical driving tests … three-quarters of almost 2 million transactions are now digital, with only 23% of people still booking via phone. As people have migrated to digital, costs have fallen.

The principal sources of savings have been reductions in employee numbers and accommodation costs. One of two dedicated contact centres closed in 2008, while the total number of employees working on the transaction has fallen from 400 in 2003 to 75 in 2012.

Digital Efficiency Report
Cabinet Office, November 2012

The coalition had originally crystallized its ambition into the three major prongs of its ICT Strategy: open data, open standards and open source. Public bodies would no longer be the sole handlers of public data and, therefore, public systems and, by extension, public administration. Open standards and open source were to be the means by which this liberation would be achieved.

This was seen as a boon to open source. It was presented primarily as a policy for open source. The coalition strategy, however, made a glaring omission that implied dissolution of state administration was a higher goal for the coalition than aiding a software movement that strove for communal enterprise and opposed intellectual property ownership. It omitted a pledge to publish the public sector's vast “legacy” software estate under an open source licence. Such an act would have put existing state software and computing resources at the centre of a public, collaborative software ecosystem. Public software maintainers would have protected the public open source estate from commercial bastardisation.

Market discretion

The coalition instead left the fulfilment of its open source policy to the discretion of the market. The market seems inclined to deliver not open source but proprietary software. Often when state departments or public sector suppliers have proclaimed their software is open source, it is not. They have merely used open source tools or components to produce proprietary software, and have employed those protocols currently deemed the preferable basis for software systems to communicate: open standards and open APIs. Even this scenario – the poor relation of open source software – may be a precarious achievement: market inclinations may change; the current period of flux may give way to dominant, proprietary forces; companies with a competitive advantage seem inclined to charge for access to APIs they claim are open. It has moreover been achieved only in some parts of the public sector. The UK is thought still to harbour gross market failures, most notably in education and local government. The dominant traits of these sectors remain proprietary document formats, Microsoft desktop ecosystems, some pseudo-open source but mostly proprietary business systems. The coalition has not tackled this market failure head on, though it formed the starting point of its open source policy.

Big beasts

The top line of UK policy was a pledge to create a level playing field for open source software. The coalition has pursued procurement reform to this end, and has introduced numerous guidance notes and procurement instructions since 2010. Along with what turned out to be a timid open standards policy, it will create what may be called a partially-levelled playing field. It has in implementation meant removing any procurement bias, and to remove market bias by adopting open source and open standards. Since it has not yet delivered the latter and the market is not inclined to offer it, it may remain undelivered. Coalition policy has indeed often not delivered open source in practice. The level-playing field is situated in an environment dominated by big beasts that cut their teeth on proprietary software and still get most of their dietary sustenance from it (even some that call themselves open source software suppliers and are praised by government as such). Any newly digitized government services that are open sourced may therefore be quickly exploited by proprietary software services. The market may thus make the coalition's “level playing field for open source” an irrelevance.

The digital transformation may not do much for open source software, but it will have cracked open the solid software bedrock the coalition blamed for blocking the broader privatizing reforms it wanted to make. Both the extent of these reforms and of open source software in the UK public sector depend now how obediently government departments carry out the Digital Strategy. They have already begun to take the get-out clauses the open source strategy put out for them.

  • UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.

  • UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.

  • UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.

  • UK Government will consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.

  • Publicly funded R&D projects which aim to produce software outputs shall specify a proposed software exploitation route at the start of the project. At the completion of the project, the software shall be exploited either commercially or within an academic community or as OSS.


e-Government Unit
Open Source Software – Use within UK Government
Version 2
28 October 2004

Open source was the main thread in ICT policy proposed by the Conservative Party, lead member of the UK coalition government, before it came to power in 2010. It has since become a subordinate element of a broader policy of disruptive reform of state institutions, in which the coalition is seeking to replace up to 80 per cent of civil service staff with online self-service (“digital”) government services. It seeks to make this software open source when it is owned by government. But it envisages giving the private sector a greater role in delivering those services. Government departments have not welcomed the initiative wholeheartedly.

For all the Conservative rhetoric on open source, coalition policy was until late 2012 the same as it had been for almost 10 years. Its Policy on Open Source Software, Open Standards and Re-Use is indistinguishable from the policy of the same name introduced by the last, Labour government in 2009. The policy's 10 ‘principles’ are word-for-word identical to the Labour policy1. That was moreover unchanged in effect from a more concise policy introduced in 2004.

Coalition policy did differ, however, in one notable aspect: it was driven from the top. Both prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne made landmark speeches on open source software when they were campaigning for government. Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, has driven policy implementation. Open source was part of the Conservative leadership's antidote to “slow … bureaucratic” state institutions and the “mainframe” computer systems they believed hardened government departments against 'reform' – specifically, disaggregation and privatization. It was central to the Conservative plan for government.

This may have given the coalition greater enthusiasm to implement the decade-old policy. Even so, its initiative lost momentum almost immediately. The coalition had created a 'Public Sector Group' to oversee policy implementation, and peopled it with patriotic open source experts from government and industry. The PSG tried to overcome resistance in the two areas most fundamental to the policy's success: among the public sector bodies and proprietary software supply chains most likely to lose by the reforms.

Neither constituency would comply. Coalition strategy had seemed straightforward enough. The Cabinet Office would persuade and cajole systems integrators to supply open source software, and it would instruct public customers to procure it. Yet PSG meetings repeatedly heard complaints about the unwavering recalcitrance of both camps. The coalition finally abandoned the effort in late 2012, when it introduced the Digital Strategy.

Revised strategy

“The current Government IT Strategy is being refreshed in line with the Digital Strategy,” government CIO Liam Maxwell told the PSG on 19 September 2012. “The intention is that revised strategy [will] move to a more platform-based approach to both internal and public facing systems.”

The coalition invested the Digital Strategy with unprecedented ambition. It would, apparently, rip out the 'legacy' estate of bespoke systems that processed the majority of transactions between citizens and central government departments. And it would replace them with open source software. The replacement would be a suite of common, open source web 'platform' services that the Cabinet Office would curate. Maude's department had already been carrying out a 2010 plan to close 75 per cent of some 820 independent public websites a move their content to, a single website under its dominion. This was the same platform that would host the redesigned 'legacy' government transaction systems. The replacements would be self-service web and mobile apps. Government services would be 'Digital by Default': citizens would be expected to transact with government online. The reforms were sold to departments as a means to cut costs. The policy operation had been conducted from George Osborne's budget-cutting Treasury department. The Digital Strategy would save up to £1.8bn-a-year, mostly from jobs cut by those automated, self-service government apps.

“Look at the private sector's take-up of open source software, developed collectively by a community of individuals, universities and small and large firms from around the world.”

“They build the product, suggest improvements, check the source code and critique each others' work. Linux, the open source pioneer, is now the fastest growing operating system in the world. ”

“Information liberation could …create innovative applications that serve the public benefit.”

“We also want to see how open source methods can help overcome the massive problems in government IT programmes. The basic reason for these problems is Labour's addiction to the mainframe model – large, centralised systems for the management of information.”

“A Conservative government will take a different approach. So never again could there be projects like Labour's hubristic NHS supercomputer.”

“A government still wedded to the age of the mainframe doesn't just mean its own processes are slow and bureaucratic.”

“It means it's not doing enough to liberate the innovation which is latent in British society. I want to see what we have called a supply-side revolution – a huge widening of the source of good ideas in the public services.”

Prime minister David Cameron, then opposition leader of the Conservative Party, on 3 April 2008

“The internet is just the technological dimension of the social and cultural change that is promised by the post-bureaucratic age.”

“You can see the nature of the change we want in the phrase itself, literally going from a bureaucratic world, where the old methods like regulation, laws and diktats allow elites in Westminster to control other people's lives, to a post-bureaucratic world, where instead of government telling people what to do or forcing them to do it, people themselves have far more power and control over their lives, and where we achieve change by trying to influence people by going with the grain of human nature.

“The lesson of the post-bureaucratic age is clear: We shouldn't always think that the answer to every problem is some detailed policy or bureaucratic scheme. So instead of government controlling every aspect of public services in our country and our professionals feeling like some drones in a giant machine being told what to do and how to do it, we will say: 'Here's your budget, take ownership of the service, and if you deliver it better and more cheaply, you can keep some of the savings'.

“It goes hand in hand with our vision of creating the big society – a place where the dull, stultifying presence of state control is replaced by the liberating and invigorating feeling of social responsibility. The post-bureaucratic age gives us a historic chance to shift the way we organise our whole affairs, from big government to big society.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, then opposition leader of the Conservative Party, 22 February 2010


The Digital Strategy mandated that the UK's streamlined, digital public services must be published as open source software: “Redesigned digital services [will] be developed using open source code by default,” it said in November 2012. Detailed policy instructions went further. Departments must “make all new source code open and reusable”, said the Digital by Default Service Standard in March 2013. They must start doing this in April 2014. Any service above 100,000 transactions-a-year must undergo “end-to-end service redesign” by 2017. The seven largest departments responsible for the majority transactions (approximately 1.4bn transactions-a-year between them) were told to volunteer three transaction services each for redesign as “exemplars” by March 2015.

One notable exception

Departments received the open source instruction with varying levels of enthusiasm. The digital strategies they published in response to the Cabinet Office redesign order in December 2012 largely omitted commitments to make their software open source. They exhibited a confusion of interpretations of the order. Some conflated open source with open standards and open APIs or, like the Cabinet Office itself, cited their use of open source tools as a measure of their compliance with the open source edict. Three made no reference to open source at all. With one notable exception, departments answered questions for this study with a mixture of ignorance and indifference. They may either be unwilling to comply with the open source element of the Digital Strategy or have only partially comprehended it.

The Home Office committed to redesign its systems for criminal records checks, visa applications and its registered traveller programme. But its strategy said nothing of making them open source. A spokesman told Joinup: “The department itself is not currently developing open source code.”

The Department for Work and Pensions, whose exemplars include its Universal Credit reform of the social benefits system, said in its strategy APIs would be the way it would “open software”. Asked to address open source specifically, it quoted from the old, pre-coalition policy: “Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.”

The government provides 650 transactional services. Half of these don't offer a digital option at all. We estimate moving services from offline to digital channels will save between £1.7bn and £1.8bn a year. All departments will undertake end-to-end redesign of all transactional services with over 100,000 transactions each year. Cabinet Office will lead in the definition of a new suite of common technology platforms to underpin the new generation of digital default services. Government digital services will be developed using open source code by default.

Government Digital Strategy
Cabinet Office, November 2012

DWP said it considered procuring open source solutions. But it would not say whether it had considered making its own software open source. On 14 October 2013 it appointed Kevin Cunnington, a Vodafone executive, as director General for digital transformation.

Departments for Education, Environment and Transport made only weak commitments to the open source policy in official statements.

Only the Ministry of Justice made a public commitment to satisfy the Cabinet Office's open source instruction. Its own Digital Strategy stated clear support even for the aims of open source software. An MOJ spokeswoman said all its digital exemplars would be open source. These were however all related to customer interfaces and bookings. The department's heavy lifting systems have not been earmarked for open source.

“Redesigned digital services [will] be developed using open source code by default.”

Cabinet Office Digital Strategy, November 2012.

“Make all new source code open and reusable, and publish it under appropriate licences (or provide a convincing explanation as to why this cannot be done for specific subsets of the source code).”

Cabinet Office Digital Service Manual, April 2013

“Our 4 Digital Exemplars are being built on open source products, using Java and Scala framework development tools, integration, testing, and deployment tools.”

But isn't HMRC making any code over which it has the rights open source and placing it in a public repository?

“This isn't something we would do. For example we wouldn't make the code for our VAT system available to the general public. Much of RTI it is bespoke Java code. However, we would not publish it publicly for someone to create their own RTI system.”

Spokeswoman for HM Revenue & Customs, 28 October 2013.

HM Revenue & Customs has flatly refused to make any of its software open source. It is trying to square its position with the Cabinet Office.

Processing almost 1bn transactions with citizens every year, HMRC handles more than two thirds of all government transactions. Its refusal to open source its software may signify that departments have been implementing open source policy only where in areas where its appropriation by private companies may be deemed amenable.

Ambition nor sympathy

HMRC's own Digital Strategy made no reference to open source. The department did however make detailed statements to Joinup on the matter. Its statements typified the departmental interpretation of open source policy: apparently progressive, but without ambition or sympathy with the greater aspirations of the open source movement. It boiled down to a willingness to consider open source software during major procurements, and a preference for open source tools in bespoke developments.

“For example,” said an HMRC spokeswoman, “we are currently evaluating open source enterprise service bus solutions ahead of proprietary options.”

Infrastructure was the one notable success the last, Labour government could claim after six years of its open source policy in 2010. Half of the major departmental websites were by then using Apache as their core web servers, while the National Health Service was running its core “Spine” application network infrastructure on Linux.

Yet the majority of business systems remain proprietary. This remains so in HMRC even after a substantial restructure of its software estate. HMRC's recent 13 Machines Strategy consolidated 900 applications into 150 based on 13 business areas. Aiming to do this without capital investment, it consolidated software licences and systems it already had. It consolidated its dependence on SAP and Oracle as a result. The operation left little room for questions of open source. But it did chime with a long-term ambition of coalition open source policy: departments should simplify their business processes to make them less dependent on bespoke modifications of proprietary business systems. Only once this was done could the other open source policy directives make sense: to avoid becoming locked-in to proprietary software systems, to avoid routine renewal of proprietary software licences, and to procure open source systems when all things were balanced2.

Byzantine business processes

The thinking was that if a department implemented Byzantine business processes in bespoke modifications of ERP systems like SAP and Oracle it put itself in hock to those vendors. A department might even be tempted to develop more Byzantine business processes because it could indulge them with bespoke modifications. And then it was on a downward spiral of proprietary dependence.

“Business requirements should be challenged if their adjustment can lead to better value from different software solutions,” said the April 2012 Cabinet Office open source procurement guide, Assessment of Software for Government. “Commodity IT means commodity requirements.”


UK government transaction systems earmarked as open source “exemplar Digital Services”

1 Electoral registration Cabinet Office
2 Apprenticeship applications Department for Business Innovation & Skills
3 Redundancy payments Department for Business Innovation & Skills
4 Patent renewals Department for Business Innovation & Skills
5 Property register Department for Business Innovation & Skills
6 Student finance Live Department for Business Innovation & Skills
7 Waste carrier registration Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs
8 Rural support (Common Agricultural Policy) Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs
9 View driving record Department for Transport
10 Personalised registrations Department for Transport
11 Vehicle management Department for Transport
12 Claim Carer's Allowance Department for Work & Pensions
13 Claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP) Department for Work & Pensions
14 Universal Credit Department for Work & Pensions
15 PAYE for employees HM Revenue & Customs
16 Digital self-assessment HM Revenue & Customs
17 Business tax dashboard HM Revenue & Customs
18 Agent online self-serve HM Revenue & Customs
19 Registered traveller Home Office
20 Criminal record check Home Office
21 Visit visa applications Home Office
22 Civil claims Ministry of Justice
23 Employment tribunal fee payment Ministry of Justice
24 Prison visit booking Ministry of Justice
25 Lasting power of attorney Ministry of Justice

Explicit policy

Cabinet Office made the significance of this policy explicit in an October 2011 Advice Note, “Procurement of Open Source”, where it gave departments standard wording for their Statement of Requirements for ICT procurements.

Business processes begat technology requirements, said the model SoR. And technology requirements begat software requirements. As long as software suppliers satisfied those needs without undue cost, “then the Government's preference is for the use of an open source solution”.

Statement of Requirements

The following is a basic form of words for inclusion in a Statement of Requirements (SoR) to state positively that it is Government policy to consider open source solutions on their merits where they are proposed and according to total lifetime cost of ownership.

The Authority's requirements (as more particularly described in this SoR) include requirements for underlying technology to support the business processes described. To the extent that the technology requirements require the provision of software, Bidders should note that the Government's policy is to consider open source solutions on their merits and according to total lifetime cost of ownership.

Bidders should note that where an open and proprietary solution is available, and where there are no material differences in terms of cost and functionality between the two, then the Government's preference is for the use of an open source solution.

As such, Bidders should clearly identify the extent, to which open source software is included in their Responses to this SoR.

ICT Advice Note – Procurement of Open Source
Cabinet Office, October 2011

HMRC was already simplifying its business processes when Cabinet Office produced this guidance in 2011. It's SAP consolidation involved redesigning over 400 different forms of taxation so they could operate on a vanilla ERP implementation. It forbade bespoke modifications that would lock it in to one version or another of SAP. One HMRC business unit cut its IT costs 81 per cent by re-engineering its processes and levelling a complex SAP implementation that was 90 per cent bespoke. It similarly merged 31 business intelligence systems into one.

HMRC told Joinup it was now looking at re-procuring its business systems. This might indicate a place has opened for open source software in HMRC. However the experience of openERP, one of the open source systems recommended in Cabinet Office guidance, illustrates how open source software might replace bespoke systems as the department pursues its aim of simplifying its estate.

Off the radar

While openERP partners told Joinup the UK public sector has shown little interest in their software, they have had attracted interest in the manufacturing sector, from firms that have just outgrown their spreadsheets and are not therefore already bedded down with SAP and Oracle. This may explain why the only interest openERP partners have reported in the UK public sector has been some minnow bites from the National Health Service, where radical restructuring has created new organisations with business requirements not necessarily met by existing ERP implementations.

openERP partners assume central government is off their radar. Alan Bell, director of openERP supplier Libertus Solutions, said he thought the major systems integrators and proprietary ERP vendors had central government sown up. The Cabinet Office has said the same itself.

“Contracts have traditionally been awarded to SIs who have existing agreements with proprietary software houses,” said the April 2012 Cabinet Office guide, All About Open Source.

“There may also be commercial incentives for the incumbent systems integrators to work with a limited set of proprietary software vendors.”

Real-time pilot

This sort of question has never been publicly applied to projects like HMRC's £356m 'Real-Time Information' (RTI) income tax system, where ongoing work is managed by primary contractor Capgemini. HMRC had assessed open source options for RTI, said a spokeswoman for the department. But it settled on Oracle for its core database and SAP for employer accounting. Cabinet Office has been broadly critical of systems integrators like Capgemini, accusing them of running an oligopoly over public sector IT. But its circulars have not tackled specifics such as the extent to which Capgemini influenced HMRC's decision to stick with SAP and Oracle, whether it did so more for its own short-term, commercial interest, and whether it is even a valid question.

HMRC nevertheless still has 500 software applications, it told Joinup. Many of these are proprietary packages. Major systems including National Insurance, Tax Credits and Pay As You Earn are bespoke. The department has more bespoke code than proprietary software, said its spokeswoman. She deferred the question of whether HMRC would make them open source.

“We are seeking to adopt open source in line with Government policy,” said the HMRC spokeswoman. “We have a preference for open source. We believe it can provide the best value for HMRC.”

The Cabinet Office edict that all new code should be open source might make significant changes at a department with as much bespoke code as HMRC. The department seemed ignorant of this in answer to questions.

Joinup asked what parts of RTI were open source. HMRC said in a written statement: “Large parts of the application are developed in Java. As above the infrastructure has significant elements of open source such as Apache.”

Cheap, reliable tools

For HMRC therefore, open source was presumably a source of cheap, reliable tools and infrastructure. Its chosen tools were those already commonly used. Pressed further, it had trouble understanding the question of whether it might open source its own code. It could not even say whether its digital exemplars would be open source.

“Our 4 Digital Exemplars are being built on open source products, using Java and Scala framework development tools, integration, testing, and deployment tools,” said the HMRC spokeswoman.

Joinup pressed the question of whether HMRC would publish its exemplars under an open source licence – as instructed by the Cabinet Office Digital Strategy – and put their code in a public repository.

“We will be working with Cabinet Office to develop our policy in this area,” said the spokeswoman. She said HMRC would refuse to answer any more questions about its exemplars unless they were made as official requests under Freedom of Information law.

The department had the same view of software written for its major RTI systems development. Joinup pointed to HMRC the difference between making a system open source and developing it using open source tools and components - and asked the question again: RTI might use open source, but was it open source?

“This isn't something we would do,” said the spokeswoman. “We wouldn't make the code for our VAT system available to the general public.

“Much of RTI is bespoke Java code. However, we would not publish it publicly for someone to create their own RTI system,” she said.

The only way HMRC envisaged producing open source code, she said, was if it adopted an existing open source product and made code contributions back to the product community. This attitude was, she said, in keeping with government policy elaborated in the Cabinet Office guide, “All about Open Source”.

That policy did indeed request little more than the procurement of open source systems. It instructed departments to procure open source and haggle with proprietary software suppliers. It did not instruct public bodies, say, to contribute their own software to an international, open source library of administrative systems - as a public open source policy might be expected to do. The policy has since 2004 said public bodies should secure ownership of intellectual property for bespoke software code – and this HMRC did. But it instructed departments to make their own code open source only in a sub-clause couched with the broad proviso that departments should do this only for “general purpose” software, “where appropriate”. The lack of progress suggests it has been deemed inappropriate for the decade since the policy was introduced.

Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use

  • The Government will look to secure full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of commercial off the shelf products it procures, so as to enable straightforward re-use elsewhere in the public sector. Where appropriate, general purpose software developed for government will be released on an open source basis.

  • Where the public sector already owns a system, design or architecture the Government will expect it to be reused and that commercial arrangements will recognise this. Where new development is proposed, suppliers will be required to warrant that they have not developed or produced something comparable, in whole or in part, for the public sector in the past, or where they have, to show how this is reflected in reduced costs, risks and time-scale.

    Government Action Plan
    Cabinet Office, 2009, 2010, 2012

Departments' own systems are now subject to a campaign to have them ripped out and replaced. A recent study of legacy HMRC software by the National Audit Office, for example, said it was old, complex, and difficult to change. HMRC's core VAT system – VATBatch – consisted of 2,100 COBOL programmes developed over 30 years. The Cabinet Office Digital Strategy cites these arguments in its case to replace legacy systems with digital services. The NAO and coalition government have both said, in support of the replacement strategy, that the complexity of legacy COBOL software might create a problem if the department wanted to make radical modifications.

They did not profer the same arguments for making HMRC legacy software open source. HMRC has insisted on keeping its legacy VAT system as it is. It processes £100bn of tax payments-a-year. Under current HMRC plans, it will be neither replaced nor open sourced.

The Cabinet Office open source edict had anyway applied only to software developed under its “digital services” programme. Even then, it said departments could decline if they gave a good reason.

Open source is rejected outright in other parts of government as well. The Home Office, which has declared against open source, has the most extensive development programme in government. It has 12 major programmes under way, including systems for immigration case work, communications interception, e-Borders, biometric asylum and emergency services communications. None will be open source.

The state might have a long way to go before it is prepared to open source its security systems. Yet the one department that stands alone in its comprehension, tolerance and public support for open source is the Ministry of Justice.

Wherever possible

“We will favour open source solutions wherever possible,” said the MOJ in its Digital Strategy. “The main benefit is in working with the wider development community, who are continually improving these shared solutions. In turn, our contribution to developing these solutions will benefit SMEs and support economic growth.”

MOJ has even published the code for one of its four exemplars on the github open source repository: a system to process small civil court claims, which with 1.8m claims-a-year is one of the UK's 80 high-volume transaction services. It has also open sourced a modest "Court Finder" web app.

Its other three exemplars have not yet but will be released as open source too, said a department spokeswoman: Prison Visit Bookings, which at 4.6m transactions-a-year constitute its single largest service; a system to allow people to appoint someone with power of attorney; and a system to process employment tribunal fees.

The MOJ could not say whether it had the same plans for its other 18 transactional systems or indeed for its legacy software estate. Its infamously disastrous magistrates courts system and long problematic tribunals system do not get a mention in its digital strategy, though they were the sort systems earmarked for reform under the original Conservative open source proposals. MOJ stands out as the only body that has publicly complied with the digital services open source edict. But its open source developments are all of a less critical variety.

Linux desktops

Coalition policy had also led to particularly high expectations for open source in local government. Local authorities had for the last decade been the only public bodies to have strived openly to use open source systems. One of those – Bristol City Council – had been trying to roll out Linux desktops and office suites for council workers since 2003.

But Bristol gave up this year. Gavin Beckett, enterprise architect and pioneer of Bristol's open source strategy since 2001, told a conference in April the council had just rolled out Office 2010 on a Windows desktop. It had also implemented a proprietary enterprise service bus. This had happened under a coalition government elected on a promise to deliver precisely what Bristol strove to attain: open document formats and open source software. Bristol had even been a sort of unofficial exemplar of coalition policy.

Bristol's problem had been that the major “line of business” applications used by most local authorities insisted on using Microsoft formats. The council honoured its decade-long struggle by implementing what it said was an open source content management system, called Alfresco. The enterprise edition of Alfresco, however, was not open source.

Bristol meanwhile acquired a new aspiration. Beckett said in April the council wanted to reform its “legacy” line-of-business applications. It wanted to automate its services, much as the Digital Strategy had instructed central government. It had little choice in this since central government had cut its annual funding almost in half, to £250m.

The Society for IT Managers (Socitm), which has a strong influence over local government policy, recommended the coalition digital strategy to councils last year. A Socitm-led campaign is now under way for councils to scrap their “legacy” IT systems and adopt the coalition government's digital strategy. Socitm has told councils to put non-IT managers with a “radical”, reformist zeal in charge of their digital strategies.

Back-seat driver

Open source has taken a back-seat. Steve Halliday, Socitm president and head of IT at Solihull, said in a speech dedicated to open source last month the council had saved £100,000-a-year by running its Oracle ERP system on Linux servers. But Solihull has had the same arrangement for a decade. What had changed at Solihull (which like Bristol had been an early pioneer of public sector open source) was that it resigned itself to an almost entirely proprietary software estate. Also like Bristol, Solihull had procured a quasi-open source content management system.

“The de facto standard, we all know is Microsoft,” Halliday told a Cabinet Office conference in September. “Because every corporate application expects you to interface with those standards, we found it quite difficult to migrate away from that.

“At home, my 2 children have laptops. We installed an open source alternative to Microsoft. A week later, my first daughter came home and said, 'I've got my home work and it has to be on Powerpoint'. And my wife came home and said, 'I've got this stuff to do for the board of governors on Excel'. I know that's happened in public sector organisations across the country – across the globe. It's a fight we are not yet ready to have, and document management and business intelligence might be a wiser place for us to go,” said Halliday.

Halliday did not return calls on the matter. The Department for Communities and Local Government likewise ignored questions about its failure to address the monopoly and restricted supply situations for desktop software and line of business applications that had so constrained local authorities. The coalition ICT Strategy said this was the first obstruction it remove to create its “level playing field”. On 15 October, however, the Office of Fair Trading commenced a low-grade study of public sector markets with a particular emphasis on local government. An earlier call for evidence gave no reason for an official investigation. But one basis for its study was a recent report that a trio of line-of-business software suppliers – Capita, Civica and Northgate – had more than 90 per cent of the market for local government Revenue & Benefits systems. The same report, by market research firm Kable, said Microsoft still had 90 per cent share of the local government market for desktop software, even after 10 years of open source policy and a coalition pledge to encourage alternatives.

School monopoly

The situation is similar in Education, where Capita uses its monopoly over school management information systems to impose proprietary rents on the market. Suppliers of the open source Moodle learning environment told Joinup they worked though middle-men who shoulder the proprietary fees Capita charged others to use its API. Capita issued a general denial in a statement. It insisted the market was competitive and based on open standards.

Yet Capita's domination was one problem the Department of Education said it was trying to address when on 4 September it published a procurement framework for school ICT.

“The agreement was developed to address the multiple issues raised by the Becta report 'Schools MIS and Value for Money 2010',” said the department's framework. The report, written by the now disbanded schools ICT quango, said the market was distorted because it was dominated by a single supplier and “a virtual absence” of procurements that complied with EU rules. It was also impeded by the lack of an interoperability standard. The OFT made school management information systems a primary focus of its market study.

Software market figures have long been closely guarded by suppliers. Besa, the industry association of education suppliers produces statistics but refused to release them for this study. Recognising this had long been a problem, the Cabinet Office promised detailed metrics of open source implementations across the public sector in the 2011 Implementation Plan of its ICT Strategy. It told Joinup it had kept no such record after all. It did however produce a metric of government's transactional systems, showing what proportion of transactions were conducted automatically, and what their cost was per transaction. The metrics would flatter progress of the digital strategy by giving high marks to transactional systems that had been automated, and by showing their low cost against systems operated by civil service staff. They neglected to record accuracy, a measure that a recent NAO study revealed might show redesigned digital services unfavourably in comparison with legacy systems. Socitm pledged recently to use the same metrics to chart the automation of council functions.

Fundamental neglect

The Cabinet Office meanwhile neglected to apply its open source directive to the most fundamental component of its digital platform – the Identity Assurance programme.

At the heart of the coalition's Digital Strategy is “a suite of common technology platforms, to underpin the new generation of digital by default services”.

IDA would arguably be the core platform service for, the site where the Cabinet Office Government Digital Service was housing departmental processes automated under the Digital Strategy: it would check the identities of people using these online services. The Cabinet Office set up framework contracts with five IDA suppliers in September through a DWP procurement. The framework agreements contained no reference to open source software, let alone expressed a preference for it. Open source was not even in the key evaluation criteria suppliers were asked to meet, though these included much else: ID verification, privacy, customer demographics, geography, ergonomics, collaboration, fraud prevention, management information, security audits, business continuity, information assurance, interface blueprints, service commitments and security procedures.

This ommission indicated how a market-led redesign of government services might reduce the opportunities for open source in the public sector, even if the strategy did stipulate new code should be open source. The coalition's digital ecosystem would depend on software services. Its procurement rules did not stipulate open source - only that there should be a level playing field for open source suppliers.

Joinup contacted three of the successful bidders. Only Mydex, a start-up community interest company, was prepared to speak. David Alexander, chief executive of Mydex, told Joinup it was open source because it employed open standards and open source components, and because it made its service available through open APIs. But it was not open source. It had not open sourced its own implementation. It also charged for access to its APIs. The Post Office and Verizon did not respond to questions.

Open source promise

Elsewhere in the UK public sector, the education research body Janet acts as international lead for the open source IDA system called Shibboleth – a federated identity system that, like IDA, implements the SAML standard.

John Chapman, head of strategic programmes at Janet, said Shibboleth could have been re-purposed for IDA, but IDA suppliers had shown no interest in it.

“One of the [IDA] companies could decide to take Shibboleth and use it within the trust framework that the Identity Assurance team is doing. But it could be that they just didn't know about it,” he said.

Cassidian, a sixth IDA supplier, said it delayed signing onto the framework because it had its hands full implementing a similar system for US government and military bodies. It developed its solution first for the aerospace industry. The commercial opportunities for IDA suppliers were evident in Cassidian's preoccupations. The government framework promised them a headstart in commercial sectors when federated identity took off. Even at the outset, their contracts would guarantee a fee for each government identity transaction they facilitated. Cassidian said its implementation, when it did turn its attention to the UK, would be proprietary.

While the promise of open source has subsided in the public sector as the has coalition implemented its policy, it has seemed recently to have been sustained in National Health Service, where the principle of public ownership has been only slowly giving way to the coalition's privatizing reforms. When Cameron, Osborne and Conservative advisor Mark Thompson of Cambridge University's Judge business school formulated the coalition's case for open source software before the 2010 election, they held the NHS up as their primary example.

They were slow to deliver. Then three years after the 2010 election, the Department of Health launched a £1bn Technology Fund it said would have a preference for open source. The application process suggested a preference for open source patient records systems under its plan for an Integrated Digital Care Record (IDCR)3. But on examination of the small print, its preference was weak.

“This dialogue may determine that an NHS Open Source IDCR has potential. However we do not envisage the roll out of an Open Source IDCR solution at scale or pace within the life cycle of this Fund,” said NHS England's guidance for Technology Fund applicants.

The coalition's greater effort in the NHS and elsewhere has been in the publication of open data, and in the promotion of standards to aid it. Its open standards policy forfeited open formats for open data standards. It has not extended its policy of transparency and open data to the private sector. Open source desktop supplier Canonical told Joinup it had taken hope from an announcement on 14 October by CESG, the technical arm of the British security services, that it had given security clearance to the Ubuntu Linux operating system. But Gerry Gavigan, who as chairman of UK trade body the Open Source Consortium had until last month been closely involved in coalition efforts to promote Linux, told Joinup he had become disillusioned. He expected public bodies to make more use of cloud services such as Google Apps. Bristol's Beckett said in April he would have done away with the council's CMS infrastructure entirely and moved it to the cloud, if he had the opportunity to do the last few years over again. The coalition's procurement reforms have meanwhile prioritized the delivery of software services through cloud providers. Its software reforms strive for a market of software services. The test of coalition open source policy will now be what effort it puts behind the acquisition of business systems such as openERP, the extent to which departments make their digital services open source, and whether that process will establish a substantial body of public sector software engineers working to sustain an open source public infrastructure and not result merely in a transitional flurry of open source transactional systems before their work, and their profession, is consumed by market forces.


1 ↵ The coalition policy is word-for-word identical to Labour's 2009 policy bar some clarifications that themselves appear in coalition policy precisely as they were laid down by the Cabinet Office under Labour in early 2010.

2 ↵ This pattern became apparent in work the coalition did before changing direction with its November 2012 Digital Strategy. This work produced a series of procurement guides. Most notable were the detailed 'Total Cost of Ownership Model' – a spreadsheet – and 'Open Source Options' – an exhaustive list of open source software departments could consider instead of their usual proprietary systems.

  • OCT 2011 > ICT Advice Note – Procurement of Open Source
  • OCT 2011 > Total Cost of Ownership Model
  • NOV 2011 > Open Source Procurement Toolkit
  • NOV 2011 > Open Source Procurement Policy Note
  • DEC 2011 > Open Source Software and Security
  • APR 2012 > All About Open Source
  • APR 2012 > Assessment of Software for Government
  • APR 2012 > Open Source Options
  • Cabinet Office Open Source Procurement Toolkit

3 ↵ The Tech Fund requires applicants to state if they have an interest in adopting an open source care records platform. It's documentation also dedicates a section to open source.


Type of document
Open source case study
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