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The future of local government must be open source

open source
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Imilian)

Local government has been on the front line of Covid-19, ensuring that vital services such as education, health and care continue. And the tech industry has stepped up with incredible speed to help deliver the digital services that have underpinned this.

In her address at the recent GovTech Summit, Nima Elmi, head of government affairs at the World Economic Forum pointed to the fact that the global pandemic has driven public and private sector technology collaboration, ensuring that we are harnessing the power of emerging technology. But she also noted the need for transparency to foster trust.

While some of the great solutions that have been developed in response to Covid-19 have been delivered in the open, we know that local government is still grappling with a legacy of closed source software that lacks transparency. 

The London Borough of Hackney has a reputation as one of the most digitally advanced councils in the UK, and rightly so. It was a founder-signatory of the Local Digital Declaration and has continued to push forward with its commitment to work in the open, sharing code through GitHub and its API hub, so that other councils can reuse and contribute to the development, for the benefit of residents through improved services. Its open source stack for Housing Services and Planning has helped it move away from the world of big IT and vendor lock in to work with SMEs to develop solutions that better meet users’ needs.

Earlier this year a group of councils including East Devon, Exeter, Teignbridge, Sedgemoor, Basildon, and Brentwood came together to assess the feasibility of building and successfully supporting an open source revenue and benefits system after becoming increasingly frustrated with legacy in-house systems and proprietary solutions. 

We must continue to embrace the startup approach to technology development and implementation, but there is a real threat that we will settle back into bad habits. An over-reliance on closed proprietary systems, big, costly roll outs, that do not deliver and data that’s locked into individual systems, inhibiting interoperability and better outcomes for public services.

Despite the lack of an Autumn Statement, we can safely say that local government IT budgets will be reduced next year, while technology needs continue to balloon. Government simply cannot keep paying for expensive technology solutions that do not deliver on user needs. Adopting an open approach will help local government advance digital aspirations and do more with less.      

Monolithic tech is not just the preserve of big bad IT

We’ve long been accustomed to kicking the big IT suppliers when it comes to monolithic systems, and their knack for taking our public service providers hostage by locking them into big contracts. But today this is not just the preserve of the big bad wolf. Smaller suppliers are slipping under the radar with solutions that are just as closed, with public data effectively being owned by not four large IT companies but many smaller ones.

It’s all very well for tech startups to replace the old guard of big suppliers that didn’t build technology very well, but if you are not mandating open source, you are effectively replacing them with a privatized approach to digital. Where is the openness and transparency that Nima Elmi calls for, and most citizens would want with their data? It’s fairly easy to see how bringing in private organizations to provide public services would lead to the privatization of government, but the privatization of one of its biggest assets, its data, is in danger of slipping under the radar.

Surely, it’s better that public data is held by government organizations, where there is the expectation that data will be managed and used in a way that benefits society, not a private organization. We don’t want public data locked away in legacy systems. Instead the transparency and flexibility offered by open source gives data back to these groups.

Trust comes from transparency

Private technology companies should be more transparent about the tech they are building by taking the principles of GDS and the Technology Code of Practice to publish code, even if they are not licensing it out for re-use so the public can see how you treat data. It’s a good builder of trust, but public and peer scrutiny also keeps us all on our toes, creating better technology that saves money, time and improves lives. Allowing local government organizations to siphon off budget to treat exceptional problems with customized solutions.

If you look at the Covid-19 contact tracing app, NHSX published its code, security and privacy designs as part of its commitment to transparency so that techies could ‘look under the bonnet’ of the app to ensure the solution was the best it could be, or indeed highlighting where it was lacking. Coverage of the source code reached mainstream media in a move that has taken the debate out of IT circles and made it central to public debate.

That was an important move to engage the public in an app that government needs them to willingly adopt, and even more so when it is based on capturing and mapping public data. Our hope is that government will recognize the positive impact this has had and will continue to drive open source as the de facto way to build, design and buy technology to ensure technological progress can have as wide and positive impact as possible.

Open source is undeniably the future, but there is a need for the supplier community and government to work together to deliver on its promise. Local government organizations cannot do it alone, they might need to lean on supplier skills and resources in the traditional way, while keeping the integrity of its code and ensuring that public data is kept within the walls of government for the benefit of citizens. It’s time to eliminate supplier privatization of public data.

Luke Morton, Chief Technical Officer, Made Tech