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Dr Mark Thompson: We need a new approach to IT procurement in government

Mark_thompson_report_author Dr Mark Thompson is lecturer in Information Systems at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University. This week he delivered to George Osborne his report on delivering better value for money in government IT procurement.

Computer journalists calling me in the office, lobbyists bombarding me with emails – that’s the price you pay for getting involved with politics, as I did when the report I wrote for George Osborne on open source software was published earlier this week. I’ve got to say though – it was definitely a price worth paying.

George had asked me to write a report on open source software in the run-up to his speech on open source politics to the Royal Society of the Arts. He wanted to know how government IT procurement could be made more efficient – and how to go about creating a level playing for open source software. As someone who’s long been appalled by the waste and inefficiency of government IT procurement, I was more than happy to accept George’s invitation.

Before I go any further, I should probably just explain what open source software is – and why it matters. It’s software that’s typically developed by a community of developers, and whose source code is made openly available to licensed users, making it possible for them to tailor the software to their needs and make continuous iterative improvements. This not only makes for software that is often cheaper than traditional proprietary software, but it is often more secure and more effective too.

So – what did my report conclude?

First, that there manifestly isn’t a level playing for open source when it comes to UK government IT contracts. Only a tiny proportion of government IT systems are open source – and no wonder, given that the Government's list of approved IT suppliers doesn’t include a single open source provider. And this isn’t because open source is somehow unsuitable for the public sector. As my report shows, this innovative approach to IT is being used by forward looking governments across the world. Just look at Japan, where the government is moving its entire payroll system over to an open-source platform, cutting operating costs by half. Or look at the Spanish region of Extremadura, which has saved over £10 million by switching 70,000 desktop computers in its schools to open source software.

What’s incredible is that some people in government seem to understand this. In 2004, an Office of Government Commerce report found concluded that: “Adoption of open source software can generate significant savings in hardware and software costs for infrastructure implementation, and reduce the licensing costs and hardware refresh requirements for desktop implementation." And yet the government’s overall policy remains the same – stick to what you know, even if it costs more and isn’t as effective.

My report’s second conclusion is that creating a level playing field for open source in government isn’t rocket science. What’s needed are ‘open standards’. These open standards enable different types of software – whether open source or conventional – to work side by side. Open standards also mean that modular components to be bolted together – by creating a common ‘language’ for government IT systems. 

The fantastic side effect of open standards is that they mean the government can follow best practice in the private sector, and split up large IT contracts into smaller elements. This opens up the procurement system to more companies, including innovative start-ups – because there are only a handful of massive IT companies in that are capable of delivering multi-billion pound contacts. This significantly increases the range of companies that are capable of bidding for and delivering IT contracts, and increases the competitive tension and scope for innovative solutions. But what does all this mean? It means that the government would never again need to sign another IT contract worth more than £100 million. So no more IT white elephants like the ruinously expensive and ineffective NHS supercomputer.

When implemented carefully as part of a well-managed transformation programme with strong IT leadership, this approach can reduce the risk of project failure and can deliver significant value for money benefits. £650 million worth of value for money benefits every year, to be precise.

So – what happens next? Hopefully, the current Government will take heed of my report and get on with creating a level playing field for open source. After all, £650 million a year is surely too much to be sniffed at. But if they don’t, I’m confident that the Conservatives will take this agenda forward, and deliver a level playing field for open source. And that’s why, in my opinion, spending this week getting pestered by journalists and lobbyists is a price worth paying.


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