Government IT and Software Procurement

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:44 pm on 9th October 2007.

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Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle The Exchequer Secretary, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 12:44 pm, 9th October 2007

I caution the hon. Gentleman to allow me to develop the theme of my speech before he leaps up hyperventilating and continues talking about the great Microsoft dominance. The Government are neutral about the types of software systems that they wish to be used. I accept that the Government spend taxpayer's money and need to get the best possible value and effective procurement.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are examples where new technology has made a real difference and transformed the way in which Government services are made available to citizens. On health, 37 million prescriptions have been transmitted electronically; nearly 350 million images—X-rays and scans—have been digitally stored; and more than 5 million hospital appointments have been booked online through Choose and Book, which gives patients more choice and improves value for money. As part of our overall strategy for transformational Government, it is extremely important that new ways of delivering services are robust, available to all and of benefit to citizens.

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want lock-in and wants to get rid of proprietary dominance in software procurement, and he is right that we need to avoid the risks of lock-in with particular suppliers—whether that is Microsoft or anyone else. For that very reason, I am keen to explore the benefits of open source software solutions. There can sometimes be a danger of lock-in with some proprietary providers, and we must avoid developing an over-reliance on individual suppliers. The Government, via the Office of Government Commerce, work hard to avoid that by using open standards to ensure that different suppliers' software can be used interchangeably. However, I agree that open source software, which philosophically speaking everyone in this room would be in favour of, can be another option. I agree that open source software and different operating system platforms can help to ensure the healthy competition that we want in the software market. Competition policy is another of my ministerial responsibilities, so I am anxious to see that flourish in the procurement market.

We have been considering open source software for a number of years and both the Office of Government Commerce and the British Educational Communication and Technology Agency, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, have published reports on open source software in the past few years. We set out the Government's policy on such software in 2004. Government policy makes it clear that, as a procurement agency, we do not favour either open source or proprietary providers. The best provider in each case, based on ability to meet our requirements and the value for money that can be provided, is our aim in government, and that is what the OGC strives to make available as an approach for all Departments and local authorities that seek to procure.

The Government want to see a level playing field for all suppliers, so that each individual procurement can be judged in a decision on its merits. That is effectively what happens. Since setting out that policy, we have made increasing use of open source software, which is now playing a key role in the delivery of some of our most high-profile IT projects. Our key online portal, Directgov, successfully uses open source products, so its 6.5 million users every month already benefit from the Government's use of open source, whether they realise that it is open source or not. A significant part of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's electronic vehicle licensing system, which provides a more convenient service at lower cost to the taxpayer than before, is delivered through open source components. In the past year, more than 75,000 people have used it to buy a driving licence.

As well as procuring open source software, the Government have supported it. We backed the Open Source Academy, for example, which brought together local authorities to encourage and support the adoption of open source technology. Some of them, like Bristol city council, have embraced open source solutions. The Government are even providing open source solutions to the public. The National Archive has released its file format identification system, which is called DROID, based on an open source licence, and that has been downloaded 1,600 times in the past year. We are using open source software, and we realise that there can be benefits from doing so.

I personally like the philosophy of open source, the idea of users collaborating and working together to improve the product, and the fact that open source software can encourage competition in the market, which I want to see and am committed to. It is for the Government to get the best software and IT possible for each procurement, so that we can give people the best service and the best value. If open source software can help to achieve that, I want to see the Government use more of it. We have shown that we are willing to encourage that, but we will only do it where open source options can provide the quality, reliability and security that we need and if they can offer the best value for money. That is in the nature, as the hon. Gentleman must appreciate, of procurement.

It is often suggested that open source solutions offer better value because they are cheaper to buy. In fact, the total cost of ownership is considered in procurement, and it is not always the case that the open source solutions are the cheapest. Although they are free of licence charges, because they can involve high levels of support and training costs, they sometimes do not provide the best value for money. External studies have not shown a consistent cost advantage to open source solutions over proprietary solutions. It is often bandied about when such issues are debated that proprietary solutions are necessarily more expensive than open source solutions, but we have yet to prove that. Some of the figures of potential Government savings from the wholesale adoption of open source that are being bandied about are not taking into account the extra support costs over the lifetime of the project.

Some open source projects cannot meet our needs for quality or security, and we are not prepared to compromise on those. Sometimes—I particularly wanted to get this message out today—we are just not offered open source solutions, although the Government are looking for them because we want the level playing field that we have tried to establish to be effective in practice as well as in principle. When the Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics wanted to procure desktop and other infrastructure earlier this year, for example, the specification was deliberately designed to permit open source as well as proprietary solutions. None of the 10 initial solutions that we received based their designs around a full or largely open source approach, although we have since worked with the successful supplier to ensure that open source options are available where that is cost effective. We are trying to shape this debate, but when contracts are put out to tender we are reliant on what comes back as an offer from the industry. If the industry is not offering us open source options, the hon. Gentleman cannot blame the Government for not taking them up. I want open source options in as many cases as possible that can compete on good value for money.

Today, I want to challenge the open source industry. We will not favour open source because, while it can be the best option and can offer the best value, it will not always. However, as I have said, we offer a level playing field, and I want to make that a reality. We will procure the solution that can offer the best value for money and that can best meet our requirements: high quality, reliability, security and more specific criteria in each case as the contracts are designed. If that solution is open source, we will use open source.


Ross Gardler
Posted on 21 Dec 2007 4:04 pm (Report this annotation)

Open standards are not enough to prevent lock-in, they help, but they are not enough. See for more discussion