LibDems’ tech policy paper backs open source, mobile-friendly websites and sarcastic tweets

One area where the LibDems were conspicuously – and perhaps surprisingly – lacking at the last election was technology policy. In fact, it hadn’t (formally) updated its thinking on the subject since 2003. But a working group was set up soon after the election, chaired by newly elected Cambridge MP Julian Huppert. A consultation paper was published a year ago; and as per the advertised schedule, a full-on policy paper (pdf) is being put to their annual conference next month. (Thanks to Richard Parsons for the tip-off.)

Under the rather curious title of ‘Preparing the Ground’, and bearing the somewhat ominous reference number 101, it sets out ideas ‘to put IT at the heart of government, to create a liberal and open environment for business, and to secure a better deal for citizens.’ And it’s well worth reading through its 20-odd pages: there’s some genuinely good stuff in there.

The first half concentrates on copyright and intellectual property issues: and as you might expect from a conference paper, there’s regular reference to the party’s liberal values. The paper restates a general preference in favour of free speech and self-policing, as well as a desire to ‘avoid well-intentioned but badly drafted rules’ around policing the internet  – quite timely, amid talk from their Coalition partners of switching off social networks for a few hours, when we all need to calm down.

There are a few specific proposals, such as the suspension of IR35, repealing large chunks of the Digital Economy Act, and an in-context defence for Twitter Joke Trial scenarios. But it’s the underlying tone of the commentary which is most encouraging. Huppert and co clearly get this stuff.

The second half is much more natural territory for this here blog: ‘filling in the gaps’, particularly as regards the public sector’s use of technology. It starts with a rather bold statement:

It is essential that decision-makers and their advisers have a deep understanding of the impact of IT across society and a vision for what it can provide.

The proposal is that ‘a specific government office be established, encompassing the work of the current UK Government Chief Information Officer and staffed with experts in the IT field. This new government office would advise all other departments of ways in which IT can improve efficiency and quality of service to the public, and engender a culture of online engagement with the public.’ Civil service and local government managers, it suggests, should ‘undergo a serious period of initial training in the impact and current implications of IT, [to] be refreshed annually.’

Noting the high levels of mobile phone ownership among the lower social classes, there’s a specific recommendation that ‘the government make all appropriate public services available online and accessible by an average retail mobile phone. This may mean, in some cases, trimmed down versions of websites with richer content.’

And there’s endorsement – as you’d expect from the LibDems – for petitioning at all levels of the political process, ‘from parish council to European Parliament’. But whilst there’s a broad welcome for the new e-petitions framework, they want to go further:

We believe that the system should also encourage the formation of communities around both supporters and opponents of the proposition. Petitioning should be more than just a signature; it has the potential to foster more genuine involvement in the political process, making it easier for people to express their views effectively.

They go on to suggest:

The government should establish an e-Democracy centre to initiate and encourage the use of tools by individuals, communities and government at all levels, funded by central government on a permanent basis.

There’s also an explicit, indeed a ringing endorsement for government use of open source… and more.

It is our considered view that open source development is desirable and should be promoted… The government should ensure that it owns the code that it has paid for, and then share it for free within the public sector in order to avoid different parties paying external firms to develop the same software. We would like to see the public sector embrace collaborative development along the lines of websites such as Github.

One way of promoting open source would be for the government officially to support the use of those open source community websites which perform public services to a similar or better standard than official publicly-funded websites. The government could also consider providing resources to the creators responsible. Formerly it has been known for the government to attempt to replicate the work of such websites.

Nice… but I’d be against a separate ‘Github for government’, if that’s what it’s suggesting. Now that we’ve (more or less) won the argument for using open source for core government business, the next step in the evolutionary process is for government to systematically start sharing its insight, and the fruits of its labours, with everyone. (Or perhaps that’s what they meant by ‘support’ and ‘providing resources’ for third-party websites.)

There’s plenty more commentary over at Richard’s edemocracyblog. He summarises it as ‘a step forward for eDemocracy’, and I’m inclined to agree.

I’ve long been amazed that the LibDems haven’t been more vocal in this space – courting the geek vote, for want of a better description. It should be such natural territory for them. But there’s so much good sense in here, that it might be the start of something very interesting.

Open source advocate’s Cabinet Office role

Liam Maxwell is head of ICT at Eton College, and a Conservative councillor in Windsor & Maidenhead. He co-wrote a 2008 paper for the Tories on ‘Open Source, Open Standards: Reforming IT procurement in Government’, plus the 2010 paper ‘Better for Less‘ for the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, in which he declares:

British Government IT is too expensive. Worse, it has been designed badly and built to last. IT must work together across government and deliver a meaningful return on investment. Government must stop believing it is special and use commodity IT services much more widely. As we saw with the Open Source policy, the wish is there. However, the one common thread of successive technology leadership in government is a failure to execute policy.

There is at last a ministerial team in place that “gets it”. The austerity measures that all have to face should act as a powerful dynamic for change. Let’s not waste this great opportunity to make British government IT the most effective and least expensive service per head in Western Europe.

And as from September, according to Guardian Government Computing, he’ll be taking a sabbatical from his day job, and advising the Efficiency and Reform Group [ie Ian Watmore] and the government chief information officer [Joe Harley] ‘on new ideas for the government’s use of technology’.

Maxwell was the Windsor & Maidenhead councillor who drove the debate a year or so back, on councils switching to Open Document Format (‘OpenOffice’ to you and me, although there’s more to it than that)… with savings in the tens of millions promised. There’s a nice interview with Charles Arthur from last summer, in which he talks through his ideas, with one rather interesting quote in the light of today’s news:

[Office software procurement is] a dysfunctional market because it’s set by standards which are set at the centre. Only the Cabinet Office can set this standard. It does sound a bit wet [to be waiting for that instead of just doing it in the council] but this is what’s actually stopping it happening.

A case of being careful what you wish for, perhaps? 🙂

I find it very hard to find much in Maxwell’s writing that I disagree with; and indeed, you’ll find many similar sentiments through the archives of this very blog, going back several years. It could get very interesting from here.

Update: it turns out this was announced on the Cabinet Office website last week. They’ve listed the areas he’ll be looking at:

  • develop new, more flexible ways of delivery in government
  • increase the drive towards open standards and open source software
  • help SMEs to enter the government marketplace
  • maintain a horizon scan of future technologies and methods.

Update 2: Liam is on Twitter, and has just tweeted:

Sad to be resigning as a councillor http://bit.ly/m09Uhi but its for a good reason http://bit.ly/keH94z

The new appointment means he has to resign his council seat. He’s also putting his (admittedly rarely updated) personal blog on hold ‘for now’… but with a promise to restart a new blog out of the Cabinet Office.

New govt IT strategy published

The new Government ICT Strategy has been published on the Cabinet Office website – and to their great credit, it’s been published:

  • primarily for web consumption, with the downloadable versions a click deeper; and
  • not just in PDF, not just in Word format, but also in OpenOffice format! The quiet symbolism is noted.

Much of the document will seem familiar, as it’s been (notionally) in place, or  certainly on the cards, for some considerable time. But I’m struck by the relatively strong language it uses, for example: ‘The Government will also put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision.’

There’s formal endorsement of Agile methodology; ‘mandation of specific open standards’; and a commitment that ‘Government will not commission new solutions where something similar already exists.’ That may sound like common sense… but the impact of such a black-and-white statement could be substantial.

The picture as regards open source specifically is somewhat disappointing, boiling down to little more than a restatement of the same ‘level playing field’ principle of recent years. Of course, as I’ve written here many times, that policy should be all that’s needed to kickstart a revolution; but it hasn’t happened. And I’m just not convinced that the creation of three new committees – an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel – plus the creation of a ‘toolkit for procurers’ will do much to advance things… in themselves. But maybe that’s just how the Civil Service has to do things.

A couple of other points which jumped out at me:

  • there’s an apparent endorsement of Directgov as the ‘single domain’, along the lines proposed by Martha Lane Fox. As I wrote at the time, there are pros and cons to this; and I know there were some efforts to keep services and policy separate.
  • an explicit commitment that ‘departments will ensure an online channel is included in all government consultations’, within six months.
  • no going back on the notion of open policy formulation, including a pledge to ‘develop practical guidelines on departmental access to the internet and social media channels’.

Coincidentally, Francis Maude is just sitting down in front of the Public Adminstration Select Committee as I type this. I’ll be watching, and hope to provide notes later.

Testing HMRC’s open source claims

The subject of open source came up at this morning’s Public Administration Select Committee hearing with (among others) new government CIO Joe Harley. You can watch it at the ParliamentLive.tv website, if you’re so inclined. I had it on in the background, and my ears pricked up when I heard HMRC CIO Phil Pavitt make a bold and somewhat unexpected claim:

Open source has been around for some time now, and in HMRC we’ve been very fortunate to develop a quite extensive open source-based set of solutions for us. We’ve actually transformed our website, which as you know is one of the largest websites in the UK if not in Europe, to actually become a completely open source technology. […] This is the website obviously which self-assessment and so on runs through. […] So not only is it out there on a very large scale in terms of open source, it is very heavily used.
(12:02pm)

Now, leaving aside the unqualified claim to be one of the continent’s biggest websites… ‘completely open source’? That’s pretty categoric.

So it’s a little odd that if you look at the HTTP headers, using a web-based tool such as Web Sniffer, you’ll see that www.hmrc.gov.uk is actually running Microsoft’s IIS 5.0. Netcraft.com seems to confirm that it’s running IIS on Windows 2000.

And if you look at the source code for, say, Phil Pavitt’s biography on the site, you’ll immediately see it littered with ‘InstanceBeginEditable’ tags: the tell-tale sign of (Adobe) Dreamweaver code… not to mention explicit references to .dwt templates.

The Online Services section, online.hmrc.gov.uk, uses F5 Networks‘s BigIP – I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it. But the only information I could find about its engagement with open source was a blog post by a staff member, who wrote (admittedly a year ago):

I’m not new here, just new to blogging at F5 Networks. I’ve actually worked at F5 for almost three years now. […] One of the first things I started checking into upon my arrival was how involved we were with the Open Source community. Sorry to say, it wasn’t much. We use parts of Open Source software in our platforms; we have customers that use our platforms in conjunction with their own Open Source deployments; we even have our own successful community in DevCentral, where we encourage users to share in the forums, publish their solutions and iRules, and generally give back to the community. As for the larger Open Source community, it didn’t seem we had a role.

Curious, eh?

Update, October 2011: After further research, inspired by a sudden spike in traffic from (what looks like) HMRC’s intranet, I found something of a clarification from Mr Pavitt, in an interview given to Computer Weekly in July.

HMRC is the foremost government department on open standards, we give away our APIs to over 1,600 software vendors for example. On open source it’s more complicated. For self-assessment online, of the bits that face the customer, the high-volume stuff, SMEs provide that for us, and 70%-80% of it is open source. But for a heavy-duty tax like PAYE – crunching 35 million people’s tax details – people may be more worried if that’s open source. We have to wrestle with what is appropriate. Certain things will never ever be open sourced. Our job is to make sure as much as possible that can be, is.

Spot the difference.

Downing Street behind open source push

Computer Weekly’s public sector IT blog reports from Monday’s ‘Open Source Integrator Forum’, described bluntly as:

a dressing down in which the big 12 systems integrators, who supply 80 per cent of all government IT, were told firmly that they were preventing the government from carrying out its policy and had better change their ways.

The Home Office’s Tariq Rashid, described as ‘helping the Cabinet Office unearth the reasons why systems integrators have ignored the government’s open source policy’, told CW ‘there had been more pressure from Number 10 over open source than there had been from the Cabinet Office’. (A statement backed up by Sirius IT, who were also in attendance.)

Slides from the event name Qamar Yunus (ex Identity & Passport Service) as the ‘Government Open Source Lead’, and refer to a Government Open Source Advisory Panel – although I’ve seen no membership list for the latter.

CW has also published the government’s draft Assessment Model for open source, and list of ‘approved’ open-source software – although the latter in particular is very draft indeed. Take this entry on ‘web’ as an example:

To be honest, it’s slightly depressing that the best example they could quote for Drupal or Joomla or WordPress (note: small ‘p’) was the White House – with a question mark, for some reason – since our own head of government blazed the trail for use of open source well before; and indeed, Cabinet Office themselves recently shifted over to Drupal. That’s before we get on to the countless examples of each one elsewhere in HMG and on its fringes. You’d almost think they never read my blog.

But thankfully, there’s a direct quote from Tariq Rashid:

If the Cabinet Office starts producing an assessment model to separate good software from bad software, looking at things like support, how established is it, is there good governance around development, these sorts of things. That would enable customers to say, ‘We want to use WordPress and according to this model it’s not going to fail’.

When Chris Chant spoke at UKGovCamp, my question to him was: we’d heard various commitments to make greater use of open source over 3-4 years; what was going to be different this time? Well, to his team’s great credit, this is something we haven’t had before – in effect, an ‘app store’ of recommended open source applications. To anyone who knows the territory, it’s embarrassingly basic – but what matters is the Cabinet Office logo which will go on the front cover.

To be completely frank, though, there’s a major concern for me in all this: the prospect of big ugly consultancies deciding to sell open source into government, in precisely the same way they’ve sold proprietary-based solutions beforehand. If we’re seeing open source as a way of not paying expensive software licenses – then yes, on one level, it is. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Open source, fundamentally, is about the people. And it’s not just geeks in their back bedrooms these days: it’s about serious, commercial, profitable businesses – but businesses with a very different mindset to the conventional IT consultancy. Agile, innovative, collaborative, JFDI, call it what you will: I don’t often see examples of this approach among the major SIs.

Have a look, for example, at the speaker lists at the BCS Open Source Specialist Group‘s two meetings on the subject: one earlier this week, one next week. Atos Origin, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Fujitsu. Can we expect behemoths like these to offer the kind of response – and frankly, the total price tag – that you’d get from a small operation (yes, like Puffbox, but other suppliers are available) with roots already deep in open source? I’m afraid my own recent experience says not.

This is the right thing to be doing. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced that these are the right people to be doing it.

White House contributing back to open source projects

Just over a year ago, I noted how the French government had contributed code back to the open source community, enhancing the Thunderbird email client for military purposes. I failed to not(ic)e that a few months later, the White House had done likewise – contributing a number of new modules for Drupal, based on development work done for its own Drupal-based site. And this week, they’ve announced the release of a few more modules:

Today’s code release constitutes a few modules we developed for ourselves, as well as a recognition of our sponsoring the development of modules widely used in the Drupal community, which improve the administration of our site in a variety of ways… We also recognize that there are really good projects already embedded in the Drupal community and reached out to help support their development.

In other words: not only are they recognising that off-the-shelf open source code is good enough for deployment at the highest conceivable levels… not only are they recognising the opportunity to build on top of it, to suit their own requirements… but they’re also getting actively involved with existing projects, in this case Open Atrium:

Prior to launching its internal site on Open Atrium, the White House helped strengthen the platform’s core by investing in key modules … Investment like this increases efficiencies gained by government agencies utilizing a common platform like Open Atrium … It’s really exciting that the White House team is so committed to giving back to open source communities with code contributions and smart investments like this.

It’s amusing to see the deliberate, repeated use of the word ‘investment’ in the piece: clearly, it’s in the interests of the product’s backers to do so, but I don’t think it’s an unfair choice of words. It’s public money being spent for greater long-term benefit.

I don’t have a problem with open source being initially ‘sold’ into government on the £0.00 pricetag: and in the case of WordPress at least, and probably also Drupal, that argument was won some time ago. We’re now entering the second phase, as departments realise that it can be customised to suit their specific needs: we’re moving from ‘can it do this?’ to ‘can it be made to do this?’. But the campaign won’t be complete until we’re going full-circle, contributing back to the projects we’re using.

DWP’s Harley takes on CIO role

Confirmation today of a promotion (of sorts) that’s been rumoured for the last couple of weeks at least: Joe Harley CBE, DWP’s corporate IT director since 2004, on a salary just short of a quarter of a million a year, is to take on the CIO role vacated by John Suffolk.

As with many of the recent CIO changes, it’s what you might call a reverse job-share: he keeps his DWP job, in which he’s been credited with ‘carv[ing] £1.5 billion from operational costs’. Tony Collins at Computer World UK suggests he won’t be taking any extra salary for the added responsibility.

But then again, and to put the two roles in some kind of context, Suffolk’s salary was around £210k, as opposed to Harley’s £250k. So it’s debatable as to whether it’s even a step up the ladder.

The Cabinet Office press release doesn’t say anything to increase my excitement at the news:

Joe Harley will be able to call upon a dedicated team in the Cabinet Office to implement the Government’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) agenda for data centre, network, software and asset consolidation and the shift towards cloud computing. This will realise financial savings, increase flexibility and reduce development timescales and risk. He will work closely with Chris Chant, the Government’s digital director, and also be able to call upon the commercial, procurement and programme management capabilities in the Cabinet Office to improve the delivery and cost effectiveness of government ICT projects.

Zzzz. Oops, sorry. Where we we? Ah, yes. You can easily see how he might be perceived, to quote Tony Collins’s piece, as ‘a cut-price part-timer’, and it’s hard to imagine how much spare time he has to devote to these extra responsibilities. But those who know him say he’s an amiable straight talker, as you might expect given his Glasgow roots – Celtic fan, by the way – and he’s certainly done a lot to cut DWP’s IT spending in his time there.

More interesting, though, is the press release’s reference to the recruitment of a ‘Director of ICT Futures’:

This role will be responsible for implementing new ways of designing and developing systems using agile methods and skunkworks environments; increasing the drive towards open standards and open source software; change the terrain for SMEs to enter the government marketplace; and maintain a horizon scan of future technologies and methods.

On the face of it, that’s quite a bold job description. Note the plural skunkworks environments, and the explicit commitment to a ‘drive towards open standards and open source software’. DCMS and DCLG CIO Mark O’Neill has been tasked with driving things forward in those areas up to now, and he spoke at Word Up Whitehall about some of the initiatives he was trying to kick off in that space: this new role should provide some very welcome high-level backup.

Always keep hosting, domains and email separate

A quick technical tip for my loyal and esteemed readership: when setting up a modest website, don’t buy your domains from your web host. And ideally, get your email from somewhere else too.

One of the second-order selling points for an open-source solution like WordPress is disaster recovery. In a worst-case scenario, you can simply export your content from one installation, import it into another, and change the DNS. I’ve had to help people do this twice in the last couple of months, when relations with hosting companies have soured – once due to repeated security problems, once because of a billing disagreement. The sites were live from their new homes within a couple of hours.

When things go wrong, you’ll probably want to turn tail and leave in a huff; and to be honest, for the amount you’re paying, most hosts won’t consider it worthwhile persuading you to stay. Transferring your DNS records to a different registrar is going to be a lengthy process, probably a few days at best. But if you’re already using a third party registrar, separate from your hosting supplier, they don’t ultimately care where your ‘www’ record is pointing. The change can be made in mere seconds.

The same goes for email. To be honest, with Google offering its standard-level Apps For Your Domain free of charge, there’s really no reason (excuse?) to tie yourself to your hosting provider’s bundled email service… which is probably inferior anyway.

Many hosting companies include a free domain as part of their package. Whether or not they do this deliberately, it’s a form of lock-in… and you’re probably only saving the price of a pint of beer (London prices) per year. The freedom to take your business elsewhere, at the drop of a hat, is worth a lot more.

Open source policy: back where we started

It’s good to see the coordinated publication of departments’ responses to the Programme For Government exercise – including the Cabinet Office’s reponse on government transparency, which also covered the use of open source software:

We are committed to the use of open standards and recognise that open source software offers government the opportunity of lower procurement prices, increased interoperability and easier integration. The use of open standards can also provide freedom from vendor lock in. In September 2010, we will publish Guidance for Procurers. This guidance will ensure that new IT procurements conducted by Government, evaluate both open source and proprietary software solutions, and select the option offering best value for money.

Nothing much to get excited about, to be honest. I suppose it’s nice to see an acknowledgement of ‘the opportunity’ of achieving benefits. But it’s a little disappointing that it should close with a flat statement about evaluating both proprietary and open-source on ‘best value for money’ grounds alone – which leaves us right back where we started. I note there’s no reference the Maude statement, back in June, about departmental websites using open source ‘whenever possible’.

Remember to say thank-you

A bit of a tricky moment this morning. As you might have spotted, Downing Street has launched an initiative asking ‘public sector workers’ to help the government find ways to implement the massive spending cuts proposed in Tuesday’s budget ‘in a way that is fair and responsible’. And as has become the norm for such initiatives, there’s a comment-enabled website dedicated to it, built on WordPress. A ‘hooray’ is obligatory at this point, although to be honest, that’s getting a little predictable. 😉

In fact, it’s a return to an initiative launched by Nick Clegg last summer:

The people who are best placed to tell us where money is not being well spent are the teachers, nurses, social workers and other public servants who work so hard day and night on our behalf. Politicians should stop talking over the heads of public servants. We need to listen to the people in the know on how we can better run public services, making sure that every penny of taxpayers’ money is well spent. That’s what ‘Asking People In The Know’ is all about.

… but since it’s all happening again, and since the 2009 website is now giving 404 errors, one must assume it wasn’t especially fruitful.

Anyway… If you have a look at the new website, you’ll note a startling resemblance to the Programme For Government site which I built a few weeks back. It’s very obviously a derivative work, based on my code. I didn’t build it, and I didn’t get paid for it. My contract gives the Crown the right to reuse my work; and in fact, I’m very glad they did. It’s entirely in keeping with the open-source spirit… not to mention the need to find cost savings.

But as anyone following me on Twitter may have spotted, there was one slight hiccup. By convention, WordPress themes include details of their author. The original PFG theme notes me as its originator – obviously. But the derivative theme didn’t. My name had been deleted, and replaced with the names of two people I’ve never met or spoken to: at least one of whom appears to be a direct commercial competitor.

I was not best pleased. I sent out a tweet to that effect: and to the credit of one of the individuals concerned, he subsequently added a line of acknowledgement. My name is duly checked, and I’m happy again.

I am absolutely not suggesting there was any attempt to infringe my intellectual property rights, or deprive me of a deserved payment. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that it was a simple oversight. But I needed to make the point.

Acknowledgement is the currency of the open source movement. There are communities of developers spending their free time building these tools, not to mention businesses freely handing over the fruits of their labours, resulting in you getting phenomenally powerful tools for £0.00. Saying ‘thank you’ is really the least you can do; and it’s often the only ‘payment’ that the open-source contributor receives. Don’t forget.

Not for the first time, Steph Gray lays down a good model to follow. On every page in his Commentariat theme is an explicit credit for the Whitespace theme by Brian Gardner; and there’s a note of thanks to my regular collaborator Simon Wheatley in its style.css file.

And in case anyone’s interested: yes, I do plan to write something for the consultation – it’s also open to ‘private sector partners working within public sector’. Now, I wonder what I might propose?