What Open Source means to government and citizens

Over the past week, we have been inundated with articles surfacing in response to the UK government’s first open standards roundtable discussion hosted by the Cabinet Office that was held on the 4th of April.

 It was described as “a resounding call to scrap the government’s policy on open standards“, as Mark Ballard from Computer Weekly wrote here in an article titled “Proprietary lobby triumphs in first open standards showdown”. The Cabinet Office also wrote its version of events in this article “Are open standards a closed barrier?” The article included this statement… 

The majority of the attendees considered that open standards, as defined in the policy, would close down the Government’s ability to benefit from an alternative standards development model and limit our choice – not least because they considered that the definition excludes standards that are made available on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms.


This seemed to be a big U-turn and possibly not a big surprise to individuals like @GlynMoody, who wrote earlier this year, UK Government Betrayal of Open Standards Confirmed, and also its follow up article published just yesterday, How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards. Another excellent article written by Simon Wardley also expressed frustration of the first roundtable event in his article titled “The Unpleasant Whiff of Lobbyists”. He too echoed @GlynMoody’s statement in an excerpt from his post below…

OK, so lets be clear. In one year we’ve gone from overwhelming support in a wide survey for both the open standards definition and those open standards be royalty free to attendees of one roundtable arguing that such open standards could be detrimental to competition and innovation precisely because they’re royalty free. I have a reasonably good sense of smell for the influence of paid lobbyists. This smacks of an OOXML re-run. If you’re in the UK tech scene then wake up! In my honest opinion, this feels like of our Government being lobbied that royalty free Open Standards will hurt competition & innovation in the software world. Expect lots of mock academic research and claims that adopting open standards will cost tens if not hundred of millions..

Support for Open Standards by Richard Harvey

Given the outcry from open standards practitioners, evangelists and enthusiasts, Richard Harvey (Linux admin @ric_harvey) has setup a website to help people to answer the consultation here – Support for Open Standards, which I urge you to join and answer as Dr. Jeni Tennison / @JeniT from the TSO did here and showed on her blog, UK Open Standards Consultation blog. I would also like to repeat Jeni’s call to answer the consultation with the three steps below:

Keep government tech open source

There is a fantastic interview with Richard Harvey in the .net magazine website about his efforts. My favourite bit was where he answers the question fron .net  “On open source, the anti-arguments sometimes centre around longevity and quality. How can and should the government protect its investments in terms of deciding what products and technologies to use?”

And Richard answers:

We need to look at the bodies that govern the standards and software that is proposed. If you take HTML5 as an open standard, you can see it’s got a good structure around it in the form of W3C. When looking at open source products there are also plenty of fantastic examples of commercially supported projects where you are free to use the software but can buy support as a safety net if needed. My own response to the consultation includes recommendations about choosing software and standards carefully, and potentially setting up an advisory panel to aid with this. This should be a coalition of industry spokespersons, engineers and developers. You need a range of skills to make sure the right decision is made. 

I couldn’t agree more with his answer. We need this advisory panel to steer our way into a more transparent and open government. Our government now, is in a transition to make public services more effective and efficient by becoming more open. Therefore we need to start envisioning what the big picture of an OPEN GOV looks like.

The bigger picture of OPENNESS

We started off with the social media movement, where the government wanted to communicate more openly and effectively with citizens using freely available platforms.  Then we realized we had to be able to use data and make it readable in open formats so anybody can access, use and do innovative stuff with them. And now we are onto the next step of transparency where open standards is now on stage to ensure the momentum for openness and usability is carried throughout government practices. Next, we will be realizing the possibilities of open source softwares (OSS) being used to utilize for big and complex government projects. Just think about it. We started the chain of events with open communication with the public and opening up our data. We then started to create partnerships and bridges between government agencies, industries and citizens by exchanging data and documents using open standards. All of this comes down to not only the ability for government to be more effective and efficient in its delivery of service, but to also come at a must smaller cost to the government. If you want to be OPEN and effective in a society that is going through a recession, you’ve got to be affordable and interoperable in the long run!

The lack of open standards impact on citizens when they need it the most

In any case, where we are talking about campaigning or supporting a cause, we often talk ‘up’ our causes. So you’d probably be expecting me to talk about how wonderful open standards and open source are to you, me and the government. But I’d like to take a different approach and take a real life scenario, where actual lives are affected by the lack of open standards in and between government agencies. Because there is no greater time where citizens will need the government’s assistance other than when they are in desperate need of information and help.

Take scenario number 1: Hurricane Katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established an internet site for victims of hurricane to register for aid. Unfortunately not everyone was able to access that over the internet because of incompatibility problems. Those using the Linux operating system, some using a Macintosh, or anyone really using the Firefox browser was unable to register for aid online. So there was interoperability on the physical layer, there was interoperability at the network layer and the transport layer and the session layer. But there was a incompatibility of applications at the application layer, which prevented exchange of information over the internet for these hurricane victims. Fortunately you could still register through the telephones, so there was the mechanism but there was a denial of access due to applications.

Take scenario number 2: Thailand’s Tsunami

Another surprising example of government impeded in serving its citizens because of these incompatibilities, specifically between standards, involving the government of Thailand exchanging electronic documents after the Tsunami. Some information could not be exchanged, because they used throughout different government agencies, different document formats.  So this situation contributed to the government launching an open standards initiative so this will never happen again.


Why Open Standards are important

Key points from this video:- 

It certainly makes a good argument for open standards and why we should fight for this cause and answer the call for action.

Richard Hillesley wrote a great article about why he thinks open standard are always a good idea and I would like quote him here are: In a world where people exchange information in many different languages and dialects, it is important that there are common reference points that make interaction possible. Once the basic rules are followed, everything else becomes possible. Open standards give us the means to talk to one another whatever applications, operating systems or computer language we use. “If I can’t talk the language of your proprietary format, I can’t hear what you say”, and conversation becomes impossible.

Make conversations possible!

So, echoing Richard’s call, let’s make conversations possible not just through social media platforms and mobile applications… With government counterparts now bridging the digital divide in our society, let’s not make their efforts meaningless by lifting the bridge back up with unaccessible documents and information. Support for Open Standards! If anyone wants me to publish their response on this blog, feel free to send if over to me and I will happily publish it! 🙂 Some other blog posts worth noting here are:

It is clear from these articles that there is a great call for the issues surrounding open standards in government to be discussed in a more transparent and open platform. I, myself have been strucked by recent events and am in the middle of organizing an event (@OpenGovSummit & website) that will endeavor to gather the best individuals who can advise and talk about open standards and the use open source software in government in a more proactive and honest manner. Please get in touch with me, if you wish to get involved. To make sure you don’t miss out on any other bits of information concerning open standards and open source in the UK government, please make sure to follow the Cabinet Offices dashboard on NetVibes.

By Liz Azyan @OpenGovSummit

Related content

Thanks for joining us! We’ll keep you informed with regular updates.

Sign up to our newsletter

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.