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Mapping the changing landscape of Free Software in the British Public Sector

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In the first quarter of 2011 there have been rapid and significant developments in the future role of Free Software in the British public sector. These changes are the latest in a series of moves by the coalition government to make greater use of Free Software, and are challenging Britain's notoriously poor record for Free Software and ICT procurement.

January 31st saw national government publish new procurement advice entitled "Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements". This was significant for being the first government ICT procurement policy to be published in Europe since the release of the European Interoperability Framework version 2 (in which FSFE played a sustained role). The new policy has a broad reach, and relates to the "software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services" of all government departments.

It states that Open Standards should be used "wherever possible" in procurement specifications, meaning that the public sector should require the use of Open Standards in as many future software purchases as possible. It also states that "Government assets should be [...] open for re-use in order to maximise return on investment, [and] avoid technological lock-in". Although Free Software is not mentioned in the document by name, Free Software and Free Software licenses provide the most obvious opportunity for "re-use" of assets, and often offer the best support for Open Standards.

Crucially, the policy also included a definition of what an open standard is, and based it on the comparatively Free Software friendly definition found in EIF version 1, and thereby including the much fought-over requirement for royalty free licensing of covered technologies. This is a critical requirement for enabling Free Software to compete with proprietary software in public sector contracts, and despite much pressure from FSFE, was controversially dropped in the latest version of EIF.

Procurement has time and again been identified as one of the key barriers to wider use of Free Software in British government contracts. In broad and clear terms this new policy officially mandates a preference for Open Standards, and recognises and values the reusable nature of Free Software.

Reactions to this change in procurement were few and subdued. Gerry Gavigan, chair of the Open Source Consortium argued that the government had not done enough to remove obstacles to Free Software and Open Standards adoption, and was critical of the opportunity for abuse of the term "wherever possible".

The Business Software Alliance (BSA), a lobby organisation representing Microsoft, SAP and other proprietary software makers criticised the new policy because of its strong endorsement of Free Software and Open Standards.

One commentator on Slashdot reacted to the BSA's criticisms:

"Leave it to [the BSA] lobbyists to come up with their own unique and twisted logic: Proprietary = choice, Openness = restricted, Freedom = anti-competitive, Free cost = expensive, Closed = innovation"

February saw the government set up a new Open Source Advisory Panel, chaired by Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe.

This panel has had several meetings since its inauguration, with members of Government, Cabinet, and the Home Office.

Tariq Rashid, Lead Architect at the Home Office, said that "The Cabinet Office is working on an open source reference stack, a software assessment model, a CIO training programme and an system to survey open source use in government", and that "Number 10 are pushing this", implying that David Cameron was a personal supporter of the initiatives.

February 21st saw this assertion confirmed in a Cabinet meeting with systems integrator companies who are typically responsible for the largest public ICT contracts. During the meeting The Cabinet Office stated that the Prime Minister was pushing the Free Software shake-up.

The government delivered a presentation, which stated in strong terms a demand for Free Software and Open Standards in future government contracts. It made clear that more Free Software in the public sector is non-negotiable, and starkly laid out the radical changes that are expected of contractors in the near future in order to prepare them for delivering more Free Software in public contracts.

In the same week Rashid drafted a list of suggested Free Software applications, designed to help suppliers consider alternatives to traditional proprietary solutions. This includes recommendations such as Gimp, Drupal, PostgresSQL, SugarCRM, and CentOS.

February 25th saw the Government publish a survey focused on Open Standards, containing 270 questions and the opportunity to indicate a preference for more or less Open Standards that were listed.

The availability of this survey was announced at the 2011 ODF Plugfest in Maidenhead, which was attended by both past and present Coordinators of FSFE's UK team. The extent of the political importance of Free Software and Open Standards was made clear by the rank and number of politicians who attended the event, including MPs, members of the Home Office, and Bill McCluggage, Deputy Government CIO at Cabinet Office.

March saw more cabinet meetings with FSFE, the Open Source Advisory Panel, and Open Forum Europe.

The above flurry of activity has resulted in Britain transforming from one of the most backward European states in terms of Free and open technology, to being possibly the leader in the field. The situation continues to develop fast, and upcoming Document Freedom Day will be a good opportunity to serve a reminder of the importance of Open Standards in the UK. Local authorities however lag far behind central Government's zeal, and it remains to be seen whether the recognition of the value of Free Software from the top will filter down to education, health, and social bodies which account for a large part of Britain's annual £16bn ICT bill.

FSFE shall continue to monitor changes and work from within and without British government to increase adoption of Free Software.