British Conservative Shadow Chancellor backs "Open Source"! Again. But don't get Excited

If you have ever read any of the articles I have written on Free Software Magazine you might just have noticed that my opinion of politicians is lower than a limbo dancer's pole. A brief brush with political activism many years ago left me with a deep and visceral distrust and dislike of everything political and a determination never to become entangled with politics ever again. So, I was not exactly impressed when I read that George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor of the British Conservative Party, had recently advocated the adoption of "open source" in government IT contracts to reduce costs. Sounds wonderful doesn't it? But it isn't and here's why.

Been there, done that, heard it all before

The Conservative Party has been dabbling with free software (Osborne calls it open source) for a few years now, but this does not mean that the front bench the Opposition is suddenly going to invite Richard Stallman to a love in at the Palace of Westminister. If you are having a sense of deja vu you are not alone. We've been here before.

Osborne was reported widely in the British press as announcing the adoption of a report by Mark Thompson of the Judge Business School at Cambridge University encouraging the adoption of open source software to manage IT projects to make savings of up to £600 million, to use open standards and to ensure that no IT contract ever exceeded £100 million. Given the shambles of government IT policy and management those ambitions are hardly surprising but Osborne (and party leader David Cameron) have been toying with this for nearly two years. (The data isn't exactly new either. The present government's Chief Information Office (CIO) has also used this figure and it looks opportunistic of the conservatives to resurrect it now.)

They have been paying lip service to what they call "a level playing field for open source IT procurement" for so long that they could have justly claimed to have created the Norfolk Broads. They are not alone. The current economic illiterates squatting in Downing Street have been playing footsy under the table for several years too: in 2004 the Office of Government Commerce, responsible for procurement, issued a report called "Open Source Software Trials in Government" which concluded that open source was "a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software". Have they done anything about it? Not that I know of.

I've never managed an IT project but that is gibberish

Cameron was addressing the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) back in early 2008, a speech in which he touched on open source amidst a wide range of topics (ironically, the website hosting a video of Cameron's speech crashed my browser (Konqueror) and when I opened it in Opera it failed as it required a plugin for the ASX video format--a format developed by Microsoft.). The range of his speech leaves you with the impression that neither Cameron or Osborne really understand free software (which they think it synonymous with open source). Cameron spoke of "championing open source software, not big clunking mainframe solutions". I've never managed an IT project but that is gibberish. Does Cameron think that free software does not run on mainframes? It is not just about size. GNU/Linux is highly scalable. It runs on everything from embedded devices to super-computing clusters.

If they're serious then they should practice what they preach

It appears to be a means to a political end and you have the distinct impression that if they could save £600 million using closed, proprietary software they would not scruple to use it. Presumably that helps to explain why the Conservatives' website videos are only viewable if you follow the link and install the Adobe Flash Player plugin. At least the Green Party seems to have some grasp of the issues as its website seems broadly conversant with FOSS, source code and free software but their blurb reveals their own specific agenda too.

It makes no sense to advocate open standards in a report which is not being made publically available

If Cameron and Osborne were really serious about adopting free software they would be doing so right across the board. They have not said anything about it in education. In fact, the British government fell in behind rolling out the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) as the de facto standard for computer literacy and that is just mostly a superficial exercise in proficiency with the proprietary software of the Microsoft Office package. (I know. I did it, before I retired.) When they had the chance to adopt free software in education with BECTA they tilted the playing field (as recorded on this website by Tony Mobily's interview with Ian Lynch). By the same token, why don't Cameron and Osborne release that report, make it widely available on the party website and even release it under a Creative Commons licence in the true spirit of free software? It makes no sense to advocate open standards in a report which is not being made publicly available.

If the government of Barak Obama can pledge to establish a website detailing how American tax Dollars will be spent there is no reason for such typically British secretiveness. The relative transparency of American government puts the UK to shame. If the Conservatives were really committed to "open standards" they would have been clamouring for a radical restructuring of how government departments like the Ordnance Survey make geodata available to companies and the public instead of remaining complicit in extorting payment for such data originally paid for by the taxpayer. (See my article on OpenStreeMaps for more detail about the Free Our Data campaign.)

It's bad but it could be worse

It's not all cynicism though. On the plus side the concept of free software has percolated down to the level of largely scientifically and technical illiterate politicians. Just getting it into the public arena beyond the borders of geekland is a victory in itself and if GNU/Linux is running widely on government employees' computers it will familiarise them with the system and psychologically condition them to use it in the home too. But it is timely to remember that politicians are also mostly economically illiterate. They actually believe that dismal subject is a science. If their track record does not inspire ("we have abolished boom and bust") then a good report by Mark Thompson could just as easily be put through the Parliamentary grinder and emerged well and truly mangled. If you don't believe me, and you can endure it, just sit down and plough your way through the doings of the Public Accounts Committee and weep at the catalogue of financial profligacy: overspend, missed targets, IT systems simply not working with each other, or at all.

Is there any reason to believe that the implementation of open source in government IT contracts would be handled any better? The expensive gravy train of consultants would still roll on even if armed with free software solutions--but at least government would not be saddled with proprietary software, expensive licences and upgrade cycles to bloat the inevitable mishandling of IT contracts. Still, the adoption of free software and its ethos in public service might be the last best hope to rescue the reputation of the British IT industry, which has plummeted more precipitously than the FTSE index in a short selling frenzy.

Be afraid. Be very afraid

The best reaction to Thompson's report however was a comment that open source should never be used in situations where human lives were at risk! It must be very comforting for a nuclear submarine commander under missile launch conditions to be confronted with a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) or Fatal Exception Error at the critical moment. If you are prone to sluggish bowel movements I can save you the price of laxatives. Just consider this headline: "Windows for Warships nears frontline service:The real blue screen of death", or, "Windows for Warships safe for Royal Navy, says MoD. Getting your blue on blue in early...". If that doesn't cause the Earth to move nothing will. This might though.

In the Parliamentary debate the Member of Parliament Michael Fabricant asked Adam Ingram, the Minister responsible, about the use of Microsoft Windows on British warships. When asked about cost comparisons between Windows and free software Ingram said, amongst other things, that "The cost of implementing an operating system for the Combat Management System in the Type 45 is a matter for the prime contractor, BAE Systems, and their sub-contractor. The Department does not have, or require, visibility of costs at that level of detail". I suspect that Ingram, like Cameron and Osborne, simply didn't "get it". They are probably just parroting what their permanent officials tell them. Some Ministers can read a brief, why, some can even understand them, but Ministers who can write a brief? Now, that's water in the desert.

DRM, beloved by Apple and Microsoft, has serious implications for mission critical software too as Victor Yodaikens's paper on DRM illustrates. Let's just hope that some bored, jolly Jack tar on board a nuclear-powered/armed Royal Navy ship of the line doesn't plug in a USB stick with "illegal" software on it and bring systems down. American taxpayers can rest a little easier. The US Navy undersea fleet is GNU/Linux hardened, chosen as it was by experienced engineers of the kind that the British government ignored when choosing Windows for The Royal Navy.

Politicians sailing close to the wind. Fancy that

That little nautical digression proves, if proof were needed, that politicians and government mandarins have little real grasp of the issues involved and if they are sleeping easy while the navy sweeps the seas "powered" by proprietary software from Microsoft then there is little hope that they will "get it" either when it comes to less critical government IT contracts. George and David are just guilty of shallow opportunism and not understanding the difference between free software and open source. Opportunistic Politicians sailing close to the wind. Fancy that.


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