Whitehall should consider open source software more seriously during the IT product procurement process, says Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid.
Speaking to attendees at the inaugural Open Gov Summit in London on 30 May, Rashid said government "understanding and familiarity" with open source is disappointingly far below what it should be.
Rashid, whose focus is on open source, open standards and information management across government, described the difficulties of convincing some government IT staff of the benefits of adopting open source platforms more widely. The advantages of integrating more open source software into government IT solutions are clear, but closed, proprietary packages from major vendors tend to get unfair advantages in the procurement process, he said.
Rashid blames both a legacy of depending on well known, and expensive, systems integrators and a pervading myth about open source security for UK government authorities' reticence to accept open source.
Despite fears that it is by nature more vulnerable to attacks, "open source as a category isn't more or less secure than closed, proprietary software", he said. In fact, Rashid went on to acknowledge that many private sector IT professionals believe open source software can offer even greater security measures than closed suites, which often require lengthy and complex dialogue with manufacturers before updates or patches can be issued.
"If [open source] is good enough for the New York Stock Exchange, we shouldn't easily dismiss it as a toy", he pointed out.
Rashid described one instance during the development of an international messaging infrastructure in which using open source software instead of a proprietary service led to a savings of £10 million.
"It's difficult internally to make those kinds of changes, but if that's the kind of savings we're talking about, [it's] worth it", he said.
But it's about more than simply finances. The principles of open source are essentially democratic. Freedom of access, redistribution and a mandate to share improvements encourage innovation and flexibility, and eliminate the incentive to hide behind legal tactics like patent trolls that are rampant among commercial platforms.
There is a "Darwinian evolution" aspect to open source, wherein users and developers want to make things better, encouraging a transparency that is parallel to open standards ideals in government. In commercial ventures, on the other hand, there can often be a disincentive to value transparency and effectiveness.
Ultimately, though, the government's "objective is to best exploit the opportunities that are out there" whether or not the most appropriate solutions are open source, he said of the IT procurement process.
Either way, the need to allow small- and medium-sized enterprises to participate in the bidding process is essential. Levelling the playing field from the IT purchasing side is as much a democratic need as it is a financial one. Diversity of choice must be a part of the government's ICT process going forward, said Rashid.
But being willing to take responsibility for government decisions is also key. "Over the past year, we've started to point the finger less at the market and more at ourselves", Rashid said. "We need to be as sharp as the market is", he added.
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