A bit out of the blue, this morning saw a revision of the UK government's open source policy. And whilst it still doesn't quite endorse the notion that open source solutions are fundamentally better solutions, it does ratchet up the expectations.
Last year's revision to the 2005 policy statement introduced a subtle - but, I thought, very important - 'tiebreaker' clause: '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.' I felt it read 'like a document which wanted to say more, but didn't feel able to.'
Well, in the intervening twelve months, the Cabinet Office appears to have grown a little in confidence. The 2009 policy included the following 'Supplier Challenge':
Building on the actions above, Government Departments will challenge their suppliers to demonstrate that they have capability in open source and that open source products have been actively considered in whole or as part of the business solution which they are proposing. Where no overall open source solution is available suppliers will be expected to have considered the use of open source products within the overall solution to optimise the cost of ownership. Particular scrutiny will be directed where mature open source products exist and have already been used elsewhere in government. Suppliers putting forward non-open source products will be asked to provide evidence that they have carefully considered open source alternatives and to explain why they have been rejected.
... to which has now been added:
If they are unable to provide evidence of fair consideration of open source solutions, their bid will be deemed non-compliant with government policy and the proposal is likely to be automatically be delisted from the procurement.
The only other significant change to the Action Plan itself is the introduction of a requirement for:
Clear guidance that where public sector organisations have procured ‘perpetual licences’ from proprietary vendors, a shadow licence cost will need to be applied to the cost of the licences. Where an agreement has been reached on behalf of the Crown, this price will be applied as the shadow cost. Where no agreement has been reached on behalf of the Crown, the shadow cost will be the non-discounted list price of that product from the vendor.
... but apart from that, and a few consequential tweaks here and there, it's all more-or-less word-for-word identical to last year.
So it's still a good document, fundamentally pointing in the right direction. But it now comes with an explicit threat to suppliers that if they can't demonstrate that open source can't be at least part of their solution, their bid is 'likely' (although not perhaps guaranteed) to be binned. Presumably because that explicit threat proved itself to be required over the past 12 months.
We're a year down the line, and it would be nice if there weren't quite so many statements in the future tense. It's also a shame we don't have some more inspiring examples to quote. But this revision hardens the policy in a potentially significant respect - and we should certainly give it a chance.
However, I have a nagging feeling that at some point, we're going to need a specific high-profile victory for Open Source, to give it real momentum in government. An order to replace a common proprietary product with an open-source equivalent. A department switching from Windows to Ubuntu? Replacing MS Office with OpenOffice? Neither of those seem likely.
I suspect the only realistic win is the web browser - abandoning IE in favour of Firefox or Chrome/Chromium. And it's not as if we don't have good reason to do so.
Oh, one more thing. It's entirely to the Cabinet Office's credit that they have proactively offered the policy up for comment, working with the WriteToReply guys. It's WordPress-based, sitting on WriteToReply's hosted platform.