Misplaced priorities hampering UK government uptake of open source

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Misplaced priorities hampering UK government uptake of open source


According to a computing.co.uk article entitled Open Source: The government's commitment so far, most of the IT technology used in the UK government is still proprietary and comes from single vendors.

Open source adoption by government agencies in the UK is progressing, but is still being hindered by a focus on "free as in gratis." Decisions based on cost-of-acquisition alone ignore the other real and more important values offered by open source, which are derived from "free as in freedom."

A policy was set out in 2004 to "level the playing field" for open source solutions in the UK government. Open source solutions are in use in a variety of departments there. Drupal powers the UK Cabinet Office website, among others. The open source policy statement was reiterated in 2009, 2010, and in October 2011 a new "Strategic Implementation Plan" (SIP) covered much of the same ground. Change has been slow to come, but things are looking promising.

The 2011 Strategic Implementation Plan includes an Open Source Procurement Toolkit to facilitate and help put into action the UK government's stated policy, "Where appropriate, Government will procure open source solutions."

"Free as in gratis" is not the point

So far, so good, but there's at least one problem. The Strategic Action Plan calls for open source solutions to be considered fairly against proprietary solutions based on "value for money and total cost of ownership."

Psychologically, the "free" in "free and open source software" is a huge trump. Dan Ariely, in the chapter of Predictably Irrational called "The Cost of Zero Cost," discussed the power of FREE! (as he calls it). One of the conclusions he comes to after a series of controlled experiments is that FREE! can blind us, to the point of irrationality, to the importance of other factors.

Proprietary software vendors understand this irrationality and in at least one case, have successfully offered one-time, 100% discounts on their software when threatened with a move to an open source alternative. The power of FREE! (right now!) blinded those involved to the long-term consequences and costs of future license- and upgrade fees, as well as being locked in to proprietary formats, which can force further investment in proprietary solutions.

Simon Phipps, writing on opensource.com says,

"The fact that open source software can be obtained without payment of a license fee is a cruel distraction from the real values."

Jeff Eaton made the same point this year at the Do it With Drupal conference,

"[Open source software] just happens to have a zero price tag, you're still responsible for it."

Both Phipps and Eaton make the point that focusing on a price of zero undermines the real values and strengths of open source solutions like Drupal. Eaton goes on to present better arguments for adopting open source, calling FREE! the worst one on the list.

Focus on the real values of open source

Here are some values that proprietary software cannot offer based on the very definition of open source itself:

  • Use it: You are free to use open source for anything, anywhere, no matter what. In the restaurant business, they say, "You gotta own the bricks." Do you want your government basing its services on something that it has no control over, has to pay for over and over again, that others can arbitrarily turn off, change or charge more for?
  • Study it: You are free to understand what you are getting, no hidden surprises. As Eaton puts it, "The bad dies or the bad gets fixed." Quality and security are common outcomes of transparency.
  • Share it: You are free to reuse the best solutions out there. Improve efficiency by building on the shoulders of giants. If you start with an 80% solution based on the work of the Drupal community and build the very best solution for your organization, you can pass it on to your colleagues, other departments, or the whole world.

It's getting better all the time

Government agencies and departments in the UK are beginning to focus on the real value propositions offered by open source. For instance, the UK government held consultations in 2011 on adopting open standards and intends to have in place a core set of open standards by June 2012. This is a big step in the right direction. The CIO and senior responsibility officer for open source and open standards of the UK Home Office, Robin Pape, contends that, "Open standards are the real enabler for change." Proprietary solutions are not traditionally focused on these standards–or are actively against them–and Pape concludes, "Open source software is part of the opportunity that arises [from their adoption]."

2012 is looking good for public-sector open source software adoption in the UK.

This article originally appears on acquia.com/blog and is reposted with permission.

Acquia Manager of Community Affairs, Jeffrey A. "jam" McGuire has a longstanding passion for the Drupal project and its community. Presenting around the world at Drupal and other events helps satisfy his inner diva, which he also feeds with performances as a storyteller, singer, french horn and alphorn player. Tags: Musician, foodie, Drupalista ...


"This doesn't mean that the UK Cabinet Office should abandon its open source policy"

er, what open source policy?




The comment above was posted to the wrong article It (apologies) it refers to the article posted on 15 Dec:
"Two countries, separated by a common IT market"


However the this article, unfortunately, makes a couple of errors, which were easy to make based on the sloppiness of the source material.

The Cabinet Office did not consult, it conducted a survey, there's a big difference, read replies to FOI here:


Moreover, for reasons that are entirely unclear, the CAbinet Offcie has quietly taken a decision to formally withdraw its definition of an open standard despite it only being a draft. More here:


Our general reaction to all of this may be found here


and here



In reference to Jeffery A. Mcguire's post of January 8 2012, "Misplaced priorities hampering UK government uptake of open source":

It is my experience that the primary cost of open source is the cost of implementation. This is due to the poor quality of documentation, particularly user instructions for installation and operation. This is why open source has not been generally accepted.

When a computer programmer has completed his programming, the job is only halfway finished. The user must also be programmed. Writing the operating instructions is not an insignificant endeavor. Technical writing is a skill and trade in-its-self. Good technical writers are paid well in private industry and are worth every penny they It appears that all too many open source programers feel that when they have completed their programming and have made it freely available, they have completed their obligations to God and mankind. The truth is that the work has only partially been done.

Linux and Open Source. will take off like a rocket when this documentation problem is solved.

Wm. F. Bos, P. E.

Yes! Any open source project that wants to mature, succeed, and become commoditized, must move from being strictly for the hard core geeks (as in "RTFM! It is all in the code. Figure it out yourself.") to being more broadly usable. Many, like the Drupal project with which I am associated, grow to include passionate, active and high-quality experts in documentation, usability, and training.

By the same token, implementation by non-experts of highly complex software, open source or otherwise, can bring with it poorer-quality, costlier, riskier results. The relative steepness of the learning curve of a given software is in part determined by its complexity. This can and should be ameliorated by good documentation, but it is inadvisable to entrust the inexperienced with highly critical projects in the first place.

Linux, in the form of its arguably most user-friendly version, Ubuntu, is well on the way to being a superior user experience, needing no particular technical knowledge to use successfully for all the normal administrative-type tasks required in most businesses and homes.

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