The large corporation and the government consultation – no, not that one

In the week that the big news story is about a large corporation well used to allegations of monopolistic behaviour (like this one), and its attempts to build relationships with those formulating government policy, in areas where a certain decision could be to its distinct commercial advantage…

I draw your attention to a post on the GDS blog, describing itself as an ‘important update’, written this evening by Liam Maxwell.

On 4th April 2012, Dr Andy Hopkirk facilitated a roundtable on behalf of ICT Futures on Competition and European Interaction. […] At the time he was engaged to facilitate the Open Standards roundtable, while we were aware that he represented the National Computing Centre on the Microsoft Interoperability Executive Customer Council [..] he did not declare the fact that he was advising Microsoft directly on the Open Standards consultation.

This all appears to have been sparked by Mark Ballard’s report, declaring the event to have been a ‘triumph’ for the ‘proprietary lobby’, and some pretty heated debate in the ensuing comments. Ballard himself adds in the comment thread:

Hopkirk is himself a cohort of MutKoski, Parker, and Brown. They are all members of the OASIS Transformational Government Framework Technical Committee, an unusual policy lobby unit that is sponsored by Microsoft. All have been critical of either UK government policy or its objectives and have specifically opposed defining elements of the coalition government’s open standards policy.

Dr Hopkirk was given a right to reply, in which he declares:

I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective. I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. I have not been asked to publicly or privately support any client brief or position in the government consultation.

Regardless, Maxwell has done the right thing, by declaring that ‘any outcomes from the original roundtable discussion will be discounted in the consultation responses’. The session is to be re-run, and the consultation deadline extended.

Didn’t I tell you this stuff was dynamite?

[Disclosure: I have worked for both BSkyB and Microsoft in my past. I do not do so currently. I cancelled my Sky Sports subscription a year ago. My main computer these days is a Mac. I’m writing this on a Linux machine. My belief in open standards is well documented.]

Open standards consultation now, er, open

I came away from this year’s UKGovCamp with an uncomfortable sense of there being an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.

The day opened with Dave Briggs declaring the event was different because, among various examples he quoted, it didn’t have a keynote address. The day concluded with a keynote address by a senior Cabinet Office civil servant, who proceeded to tell us what his team of hired specialists were going to do.

But the ‘us and them’ was even more apparent in the first session I attended, led by the Cabinet Office’s Liam Maxwell, on the subject of open standards. The substance of the presentation was:

  • we think open standards are very important;
  • we’re doing lots of very important things, none of which we can talk about;
  • but we’d value your input when the time comes.

I voiced a certain amount of frustration in the questions which followed, so it won’t surprise Liam if I say it all felt thoroughly unsatisfying.

Having said that, I did – and do – have some sympathy. Open standards are commercial dynamite: software lock-in is worth £££millions to the big vendors. Enough for those vendors to put up a hell of a fight, in defence of an unsustainable and #unacceptable status quo. And to extend my metaphor just one step further, Liam and his colleagues were keeping their powder dry.

The aforementioned time for our input has now come: the Cabinet Office has opened its consultation process, with Liam asking for ‘as much feedback from the IT community as possible… There’s a lot of strong opinion on this subject,’ he says, ‘so I’m urging people to take this opportunity and let us know what they think.’

The consultation ‘document’ is online, and it’s been done on WordPress. 😉

The interactive part of the site comes in three pages of questions, two of them very long and very scary, powered by a bespoke plugin (by the look of it). At the very top, it declares:

which may not be quite what they meant. Based on the error message displayed following a blank submission, it looks like only name and email address are actually required, plus an answer to at least one question. And if there’s an asterisk anywhere, I’ve yet to find it.

The exercise itself is all rather semantic, and the language inevitably technical. It goes way over my head, to be perfectly honest. But my feelings on open standards are easily summarised:

As open as possible, as standardised as possible, as soon as possible.

Based on my experience in the Civil Service, it’s that final point which is probably most important. I’ve been scarred by past experiences – notably around the Government Category List and eGMS, which both took several years, went through numerous iterations, and yet seemed to deliver no tangible benefits. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

This time round, hopefully, things are different. The ‘cloud computing’ narrative has been widely accepted; and implicit in that is the belief that government’s needs are not unique. Government should be looking to embrace standards that are already being widely adopted – and where there are any (perceived) deficiencies, it should play a part in their development.

Exactly how it does that, frankly, is up to smarter people than me.