Open Source Politics

It is no secret that in the United Kingdom we are far behind many countries in our use of open source software. Now there are no doubt many reasons for this both social, economic and political but a major factor must be the approach of the Government. The Government has direct influence over the public sector the biggest consumer of IT and also over Education which lays many of the foundations to our use of computers.

At a time when we can not be far from an election the Labour party does not appear to have a coherent policy on open source software. This is in stark contrast to the other major parties who take all opportunities to say how much they love open source. Now I am as cynical as the next person and of course it is very easy to be a crowd pleaser when you are in opposition and delivering on your promises appears a long way off.

Even with plenty of sound bites it was still difficult to get a clear picture of each parties approach towards open source. In a true unbiased fashion I have listed in alphabetical order what I could glean from the major parties:

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The Conservatives website was actually quite good, has relatively easy navigation and a reasonable search facility. They are also very keen to advertise there ‘Web 2.0’ badges with Twitter, Facebook, Bebo and Myspace links. With successful use of Web 2.0 and social networking in The Barack Obama campaign I am surprised that all parties are not so positive with their use of social networking.

The following comments were taken from speeches

David Cameron

“We will follow private sector best practice which is to introduce ‘open standards’ that enables IT contracts to be split up into modular components. So never again could there be projects like Labour’s hubristic NHS supercomputer. And we will create a level playing field for open source software in IT procurement and open up the procurement system to small and innovative companies…

Full details on The Conservative website

“What it is about is better and more effective government. The problem is that the cultural change has not taken place in government. There isn’t a level playing field for open source software. As it stands, too many companies are frozen out of government IT contracts, stifling competition and driving up costs.

“Taking into account the experience of companies and public sector bodies, it is estimated that the Government could save at least 5% of its annual IT bill if more open source software was used as part of a more effective procurement strategy. That adds up to over £600m a year. The internet age is transforming politics and has the capacity to transform government. Let’s start being open source right now.”

George Osborne talking about new media

Instead of experts deciding which order to rank the web pages in, the on-line community decides collectively by its actions.
Another example is Linux. Linux is the open-source operating system that is the main rival to Microsoft Windows.
Linux is constantly updated and improved. Yet no one owns Linux. No one is directing the improvements or updates. The code is available on-line and thousands of independent programmers make changes, fix bugs, and add new features – all for no personal gain.

Full details on the Conservatives website

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OK the Green Party may not be seen as a major party in the UK but it would still be a shame not to give them a mention when presumably they would be so supportive of any open source initiatives. To be fair there is not a great deal of information about open source to be found from the greens but that maybe understandable given their resources and what they may see as the core messages. Never the less there are a few sound bites about such as:

Open source software should be more widely available in order to help reduce the ‘digital divide’, according to Dr Caroline Lucas, Green MEP forthe South East. Liberal Democrats

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The Labour Party’s website, at least to me, appeared the least friendly (no Obama-esque Web 2.0 friendlyness here) and offered no real information on open source. Further digging around only really turned up criticism for their lack of policy (again this is to be expected – it is politics) and overall it was disappointing.

The only interesting thing I found out about (not open source related) on the puffbox blog here was that they do have a twitter account “UKlabour” (“Labour” was taken by the Irish Labour Party – ooh that must hurt!)

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The Liberal Democrats website may not be as slick as The Conservatives but they do have a creative commons license on their site and appear to be the only party who talk about using open source software themselves:

Rugby based Open Source IT Consultancy credativ has been awarded a contract by the Liberal Democrats to provide server migration and support for its IT systems that are based on free open source software.

What the Liberal Democrats do have is John Pugh an MP who appears to know what he is talking about when it comes to open source software and open standards. Some great information on John Pugh on the Open Rights Group Wiki here http://www.openrightsgroup.org/orgwiki/index.php/John_Pugh_MP

John Pugh as quoted on the Open Rights Group Wiki

Westminster Hall debate Government IT and Software Procurement 9 October 2007

… Four things ought to be avoided. The first is a lock-in, an indefinite commitment to a single proprietary solution—endless licensing renewal that the Government simply cannot get out of. Secondly, there must obviously be interoperability; its absence will always be a problem, because it limits the growth and integration of whatever software has been bought, as well as one’s choice of supplier. Thirdly, it is preferable to have access to the source code, so that if necessary people can understand what they have. Finally, it is extraordinarily helpful to have a good skills base on the client side, so that people know what they are dealing with.
On that basis, one would expect the Government to have made use of the growing British open-source software industry, which is by and large highly successful, although there are exceptions. It is successful in a number of operations known to all, such as eBay, Amazon, banks and stock exchanges and so on. …

More about John Pugh can be found at his website http://www.johnpughmp.com/ which runs on Joomla the open source CMS (Content Management System).

Bournemouth 2008: Vince Cable speech

We’ve got to stop the gravy train of management consultancy in government; stop questionable government IT projects like that for the NHS and insist that procurement is from the cheapest, open source; and take an axe to the overgrown thickets of quango land.

More here http://www.libdems.org.uk/conference/bournemouth-2008-vince-cable-speech-982960;show

Overall the main parties policies could be a lot clearer on open source and maybe in the run up to any election they will make more definate statements but for now I will continue to follow this area with interest.

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2 Comments

  1. Phil,

    Interesting. You ought to look at govt agencies as well.

    I was at the IT steering committee meeting of my local FE college. In attendance was the IT manager for the local council. When I asked him about the use of OS software he said that Microsoft was mandated by the LGA – i.e. local authorities had to use it.

    Also the senior lecturer on the app development degree said they couldn’t effectively teach Linux or the use of OS tools as part of the course because the IT support group at the college would only support Microsoft applications and servers. They therefore couldn’t get any budget approval to install any OS software or servers for teaching.

    I was gobsmacked.

  2. Thanks Martyn

    Yes, it seems crazy that we are not using open source software more in education from nursery right though to university. Open source software actually allows students to learn from the code and use it many different ways that proprietary software does not allow. Proprietary software actively discourages learning.

    It should not require a change of government to have a better policy on open source any government should be able to see the benefits.

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