Open Standards: Unlocking The Shackles Of IT

The UK Government has long been the prisoner of lengthy IT projects, costing billions of pounds whilst finishing over budget and over time – and sometimes never finishing at all. It is truly extraordinary that in an era where technology can transform every aspect of our daily lives, public sector IT has all too often acted as a shackle, restraining much needed change, instead of a key for unlocking innovation to deliver the very finest public services.

However, after much dither and delay, the Cabinet Office has at long last published an official document, entitled Open Standards Principles, the result of many months of consultation and a key paving stone in the road towards flexible Government IT.

This document is welcome but long overdue. I have argued before that alternatives to proprietary solutions such as open source software should play a much bigger role in Government IT. When compared to other countries, such as the US and France, the UK still has a lukewarm approach to open source adoption. Nevertheless, the collaborative principles established in the document such as the Standards Hub and calls for adoption of interoperable technology mirror very well with the spirit of the open source community.

The document also takes the UK Government one-step closer to a genuine level playing field for diverse IT adoption. In a bold and honest statement, it reads: “The Government’s procurement choices have resulted in a lack of diversity in existing government IT contracts. As a purchaser of IT, this restricts our options and threatens value for money.”

This admission simply reaffirms what we already knew, expensive long-term contracts forced smaller vendors out of the procurement process, costing the public sector money, lots of it.

Opening up the procurement process to challenger brands and smaller providers will add fuel to the UK technology economy and rebalance the competitive landscape so that alternate providers have a fair chance. The proposals will also help fuel initiatives such the Tech City project, giving start-ups an opportunity to bring their expertise and innovation to transform public services for the long term.

Likewise, in a fast changing technology landscape with record public debts, reducing the burden of expensive IT spend should be a top priority for the public sector. In this climate, no Government can efficiently operate with a disconnected infrastructure. Departments need to share data, collaborate on major projects and share best practice where possible.

Hailing the launch of the document, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office tells us: “The publication of the Open Standards Principles is a fundamental step towards achieving a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and breaking our IT into smaller, more manageable components.” It is this vision for digestible IT that will excite the technology community – let’s hope the Government can turn it into reality.

Steven George-Hilley is Director of Technology & Enterprise at Parliament Street, one of the UK’s most influential think tanks. Parliament Street is fundamentally a research-based organisation, producing papers and a political magazine that influence thinkers in government, the media and the academic world. The group holds regular debates in Westminster and at major conferences across the UK.