by Jerry Fishenden

Will the new Cabinet deliver open IT and better public services?

Sep 04, 20123 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

It’s clear that the government’s IT strategy is already having an impact. Alongside significant savings in IT-related expenditure there’s been the successful launch and adoption of the CloudStore, with utility services increasingly being provided at competitive prices. Elsewhere we have seen HMRC’s removal of exclusivity in the provision of its IT services, an approach likely to be repeated elsewhere in Whitehall.

Such developments are helping drive much-needed innovation, moving to user-driven IT requirements based on technology- and vendor-agnostic procurement and the separation of business logic and policy automation from supporting applications. The intent is to free the public sector from its historic and expensive lock-in to a relative handful of specific systems and suppliers and to restore an open and competitive marketplace in IT goods and services.

The government’s ambition to deliver these important changes relies in part on the use of open technical standards for software to help improve interoperability and the better use of information. A report by Bournemouth University calls into question the whole rationale for software patents and therefore the argument that FRAND (royalty bearing software) is necessary to incentivise innovation. This could prove to be a potentially industry-disrupting conclusion.

Their report sets out four significant findings:

  • intellectual property rights (as applied to software standards) do not provide the right incentives for enabling interoperability
  • royalty bearing software standards (FRAND) come with potential restrictions that are difficult to justify.
  • for future IT procurement, the aim must be to encourage the use of royalty free (RF) standards to increase competition
  • although open standards offer important benefits, including avoiding lock-in and improving interoperability and competition, careful implementation is required to optimise these benefits

All of which will be welcomed by supporters of the government’s IT Strategy, particularly its focus on open technical standards for software interoperability. The strategy will be significantly bolstered by supporting evidence such as this, enabling it to retain its focus on disintegrating the tightly integrated, proprietary systems organised around suppliers and service providers and re-aggregating them in the form of services designed around the citizen, taking advantage of the utility economics of a rapidly evolving services marketplace.

Few could argue against the benefits that Bournemouth set out for the government’s policy of mandating appropriate open technical standards:

“Specific benefits identified include a reduction in lock-in and associated switching costs; a reduction in the size and duration of IT projects, and the sharing and reuse of IT across departments; encouraging innovation and opportunities for smaller companies to participate in contracts; and improving business and consumer interface with government”

Few, that is, apart perhaps from existing providers and suppliers seeking to maintain the status quo of the current failed supply ecosystem. But in a sense that’s the point – this is no longer about the public purse funding select suppliers’ narrow self-interests: it’s about our UK public services and the role of modern technology in helping improve them, for the benefit of us all.