“Recipe for Rip-Offs”

Here in the UK the Public Administration Select Committee has been looking into the poor record government has in procuring IT systems. The title of their report “Government and IT- “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”: Time For A New Approach” serves as a neat summary of the content. Stating the problem, the report says

The UK has been described as “a world leader in ineffective IT schemes for government“. There have been a number of high cost IT initiatives which have run late, under-performed or failed over the last 20 years including: the Child Support Agency’s IT system, the IT system that would have underpinned the National ID Card scheme, the Defence Information Infrastructure Programme, the implementation of the Single Payments Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency, and the National Offender Management System (C-Nomis).

The main problem, the report says, is that the Government does not have the internal skills to specify and procure IT systems. As a result they tend to rely on large external contractors to manage the process of developing IT systems (and to subcontract to smaller businesses where necessary) . Naturally this involves handing over very large amounts of both cash and power to the ‘head’ contractors, and it is this complete externalisation of the ‘IT customer’ function that the report points to as the key failing in previous large government IT procurements. The answer, therefore, is to get better IT management skills within departments and take on the management of the smaller subcontractors themselves.

This is not the only failing identified. It seems that Government also tends to ‘gold-plate’ (over-specify) security requirements even on systems that do not require it. The report also criticises the tendency to see IT projects as a distinct kind of problem rather than an exercise in change management like any other. Nevertheless, it is the ‘externalisation’ problem which looms largest in the report’s somewhat gloomy findings, and it is in this context that the issue of open source arises.

Early on the report identifies the creation of ‘a level playing field for open source software’ as one of the approaches to solving the problem of Government IT that had already been suggested. In the recommendations, we find that open source is mentioned in the context of providing an open data platform for Government-held data which could be developed upon by third parties to provide analysis and manipulation applications. While both of these suggestions are sound in themselves, I think it is in the core recommendation that we can see the best opportunity to realise value for the UK taxpayer from open source software and development.

While there are very large scale corporations offering open source solutions, the majority of bidders for Government IT contracts offer closed source solutions, often with the bidder themselves retaining ownership of the IPR in the resultant code and licensing it under very restrictive terms. If the current reforms succeed in getting departments to break down IT procurements into smaller interoperating sections and invite bids for these from smaller, more agile developers, the opportunity for existing successful open source projects to be the bases for Government IT solutions expands. Assuming that the newly-acquired IT experts within departments are able to meaningfully engage with the communities around these projects – both through their hired developers and as users themselves – then huge amounts of value in terms of code, user requirements and expertise which are currently locked into closed, non-functioning projects will be available for the good of the community at large. The projects themselves will learn how to interact with Government clients, and software components of general application will find their way back into the public space to benefit other large-scale users.

All of these benefits, though, depend both on an openness to the use of open source software but also on expertise in managing the relationship with that software’s community. So while I welcome heartily the proposal that Government acquire the IT skills to take a hands-on role in managing their IT procurements, I hope that those IT skills will include expertise in exploiting the unique benefits of joining an open source community.