Endemic risk aversion is preventing the UK public sector from exploiting the benefits of open source software. David Gauke MP, Shadow Minister for the UK Treasury, pointed out at a Westminster open source seminar that just 6% of the Treasury’s servers are based on open source. Figures from some other departments were even less healthy or too nebulous to quantify at all.
The UK government spends 12.4bn pounds a year on IT. The answer to whether open source can reduce that is clearly, yes, said Mark Taylor, president of the Open Source Consortium and CEO of Sirius.
But the unholy trinity of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are stopping public sector bodies from taking the plunge into open source and instead they feel more comfortable sticking to the usual software suspects. According to Red Hat fellow Alan Cox, the first question British civil service representative is likely to ask is: How can it go wrong and who can I blame when it goes wrong?
Cox points out the stark difference with the attitude in the UK. The US government is not risk averse and looks at projects in a very commercial way, he added.
The litany of government IT disasters has only project managers even more jittery and less likely to risk a toe in open waters.
Even when open source stacks up, there is still a lot of resistance against using it. John Powell, president and CEO of open source firm Alfresco cited the example of an MoD contract. He said it took a brave procurement guy six months to persuade people to choose Alfresco enterprise content management offering, and only after 26 proprietary vendors were shown to be unfit for requirements.
Cultural issues play their part too. Birmingham City Council uses Linux and actively looks at using open source software across the business. Gerry McMullan, business policy manager at the council remembers how an obvious business case for Sun’s open source StarOffice productivity suite went awry.
Although finally shelved for due to an organizational reshuffle, the project hit a major barrier early on. It got blocked, initially because internal support people weren’t happy, said McMullan.
Support and integration are key worries for public sector managers, as well as identifying the business driver. That seems to be the key thing: the vision in organizations and the will for organizations to push it through, said McMullan.
But open source is not the panacea for all government ills. A large number of software projects fail because they were designed wrongly. Open Source would not have saved the NHS project. OS is a tool, not a solution, said Cox.