In May 2008 OSS Watch published a workshop report with the title “Levelling the playing field: developing a mixed economy for software procurement”. This report focussed on procurement in the Higher and Further Education sectors and recomended that we work to:
- ensure all solutions use open standards and provide protection against vendor lock-in
- facilitate better communication with senior managers across HE/FE as to the potential benefits and pitfalls of making use of open source solutions
- encourage educational ICT bodies with an overview of the sector such as UCISA and BECTA to assist institutions with open source related training and knowledge
- work to improve the ITT and PPQ processes within institutions
OSS Watch has been funded by the JISC since 2003, part of our remit has been to facilitate the appropriate adoption of open source in the sector, yet the recomendations made in our workshop were largely the same as they were in 2003. Did this mean that OSS Watch was having no effect?
I’m pleased to say that OSS Watch have had some influence on the adoption of open source in the education sector. For example, we worked with our own funders on an open source policy which was adopted in 2004. Similarly, we worked with BECTA during the creation of the Open Source Schools project (as well as helping BECTA understand what the goals of this project were we continue to provide advice, guidance and materials to the company running the site).
However, when it comes to influencing individual procurement decisions we have struggled to have any significant impact. Put bluntly, there is very little our small team can do when faced with procurement policies and staff that are predisposed towards the incumbent suppliers products.
I was therefore encouraged when the Cabinet Office published “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan“. This document is intended to put open source software onto an equal footing with proprietary forms for procurement.
As with the 2004 government policy on open source we are assured that “Procurement decisions will be made on the basis on [sic] the best value for money solution to the business requirement, taking account of total lifetime cost of ownership of the solution, including exit and transition costs, after ensuring that solutions fulfil minimum and essential capability, security, scalability, transferability, support and manageability requirements” and “The Government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and require solutions to comply with open standards. The Government will support the development of open standards and specifications.”
However, this new document goes a small, but important, step further.
It states “Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.” Many commentators have, so far, missed the importance of this statement. The key is in the acknowldgement of “additional inherent flexibility”. This is over and above the flexibility provided by the adoption of open standards.
This “additional inherent flexibility” is a result of having access to the source code. Closed source software can adopt open standards, but they still provide a form of lock-in since there is only one source of customisation and maintenance for that product. When the source is freely available one is able to shop around various support providers in addition to selecting from various interoperating products.
The introduction of competition through open standards is clearly a step in the right direction. However, competition between software providers is also desirable. This is a topic I cover when presenting at procurement related events, and is something OSS Watch believe is very important given that requirements for software usually change as an organisation matures. These changes may not be aligned with the business model of the current support provider.
I’m also encouraged to see that the document identifies a number of actions including “develop clear and open guidance for ensuring that open source and proprietary products are considered equally” (action 1). This is a very complex issue and is something OSS Watch have been trying to do in the education sector for some time.
The problem is that open source and closed source solutions cannot be compared using the same techniques. Whilst the software products themselves can be compared on a feature by feature basis, the softer aspects, such as quality of support, security, flexibility and sustainability of the solution cannot be easily compared like for like. Consequently, it is necessary to change the procurement process itself before any real impact will be seen. Simon Phipps of Sun Microsystems suggests one potential model for a level procurement playing field through adoption led approaches, and warns about how the existing process can be gamed.
Further to the need to change the procurement process we must also ensure our workforce has the necessary skills to evaluate and engage with open source software. Without this skillset policies and action plans will fall on deaf ears, who is going to implement them? I discuss this in my November post “We have an open source future – or do we?“
Despite these concerns, I welcome this document from the Cabinet Office and encourage those with an understanding of open source and, in particular, how it should be evaluated to actively review and comment on the document using the CIO defined tag of #ukgovOSS so that it gets picked up and syndicated on a special public FOSS Aggregation page.