by Tony Westbrook

Opening up government IT

Nov 19, 20124 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

For some time it has been clear that the current incumbents of the Cabinet Office are determined to insert a stick of high explosive into the comfortable nether regions of assorted Whitehall departments. The reason? To make them sort out their approach to IT projects and planning. Failures of a string of huge, expensive projects towards the end of the last government’s tenure demanded a strong response from whoever was taking over.

Bungling on such a heroic scale triggered a hawkish response from the Conservatives during the run-up to the last election. Now that those same critics are part of the current coalition, the hawks are pecking furiously at the carcass of a Whitehall IT hegemony. Less cost and more opportunity for competition. Who would disagree that this is the right course of action for a cash-strapped government?

So it was earlier this year that the Cabinet Office got tough with some of their biggest IT services suppliers, renegotiating flabby contracts and clamping down on spending. The stated aim was smaller, shorter contracts and less reliance on a small number of big vendors. A recent announcement from the Cabinet Office suggests this had resulted in £490m saved on ICT and digital spending in the first six months of this year alone.

In parallel there has been a focus on the adoption of open software in favour of proprietary, with the same objectives: lower cost and more flexibility and choice in government digital solutions. A long round of debate and consultation between the vendors, who have the most to lose, and a thin red line of government mandarins intent on breaking free of the vertically integrated hegemony followed this year.

Some observers struggled to believe that the result would be a departure from the status quo. How close to a true open source definition would the Cabinet Office go? Would it apply to regional as well as central government? How would this policy be enforced?

November saw the announcement of the new Open Standards policy by the Cabinet Office. The final end product of this long process? No, but those same observers have had to admit that the policy is pleasingly unvarnished, worded in unequivocal terms: future software standards used in government must be royalty-free (RF), rather than the more software company-friendly fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) ones favoured by the big vendors.

This is only the opening salvo in a long campaign yet to be fought, but it answers one of the doubters’ questions: at last a set of principles define open standards at interface, software interoperability protocol and data and document format levels. All good. However, as Churchill once suggested, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning…”

The Cabinet Office Standards Hub home page shows a flowchart of the process they will oversee for open standards adoption: It starts with ‘Challenges’, moves into a ‘Standards Pipeline’ and finally ends with ‘Adopted Standards’. Examination of this pipeline reveals a long list of challenges, but no evidence of any standards either in progress or adopted. The pipeline is dry.

The argument from inside the Cabinet Office is that no such work could be done in advance of the long and protracted debates with the vendor community. That may well be true, but the test of the Cabinet Office’s mettle and that of the chief architect of these reforms – deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell – will be in how quickly the reams of principles, statements and policy documents can be transformed from principle to reality: from challenges into adopted standards.

Because until these standards are published, no progress will be made on the third and toughest stage of the process: getting government IT projects to actually conform to them.