Tuesday 15 May 2012

Glow2—Managing Open Technologies in the Public Sector in Scotland

The need to reduce costs and improve services is bringing the use of free and open source software to the centre of discussions about strategies for ICT in Scotland. But it appears that Scotland isn’t about to change its ways.

Where are we now?

An article in the Spring edition[1] of the UK publication, Central Government says:

Free, Libre or ‘Open Source’ Software … has been the big success story of the IT world, taking the enterprise by storm and exposing proprietary software as over-priced, inflexible and insecure. Governments from Brazil to China have rushed to adopt the free GNU/Linux operating system (OS), to benefit from software that can be adapted to local needs. Held back by their cautious procurement policies and procedures, the UK Government and local authorities have so far just dipped the occasional toe in the water, then rushed to embrace the next special deal from proprietary software vendors.[1]

How true that is, and how relevant to the current process of developing a new ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland, and for the decisions being made now about the successor to Glow[2] (the Scottish “national online community for education”). Glow, when it launched for full in 2007[3], was “the world’s first national education intranet”[4]. Surely we don’t want to be overtaken by the rest of the world!

It is perhaps encouraging to note that soon after the above quote, the UK Office of Government commerce produced a report[5] on open source software trials in Government and concluded, amongst other things, that:

Open Source software is a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software for infrastructure implementations, and for meeting the requirements of the majority of desktop users[5]

But whilst it is great to know that the UK Government is behind the use of open source software, one might look at the very comprehensive report by the Institute of Infonomics for the European Union[6] (produced two years earlier) and ask why it has taken the UK government so long to get its own act together? Here’s a quote from that earlier report where it talks about the cost benefits of free and open source software:

Despite the possibly high costs of migration (which would also arise by migration to another proprietary technology) this shift should be gainful in any case. The situation after the migration to open source software will lead to lower life-cycle costs. Furthermore costs of service, support, and maintenance can now be contracted out to a range of suppliers, being placed in the competitive environment of a functioning market. The costs of this more service-oriented model of open source are then also normally spent within the economy of the governmental organization, and not necessary to large multinational companies. This has a positive feedback regarding employment, local investment base, tax revenue, etc.[6]

Back to reality

But I’m sad to say that I may have been a little misleading. The reports quoted above are not new reports. The first two quotes were published in 2004, and the European Union report on FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) was published in 2002—ten years ago and five years before Glow first launched.

So, when late last year (Sep 2011), Mike Russell (Cabinet Secretary for Education in Scotland) announced a move to using “the free tools and the open source services that already exist on the web”[4], this “new approach” was proposing something that had been recommended to the public sector in the UK at the beginning of the previous decade and long before the first version of Glow was even conceived.

But let’s give Scotland a chance to catch up, after all, the first reference I can find to the Scottish Government making a policy of using free and open source software was in 2007:

Next Steps

41. There is a need to maximise the returns on, and benefits from, investments in publicly funded software. The ability to freely share software which has been developed within the Scottish public sector or bespoke software funded by the Scottish public sector would be enhanced by making this available as FLOSS [Free/Libre and Open Source Software]. Copyright of software, documentation, design materials, manuals, user interface and source code should be released under an OSI-approved open source licence unless there is a compelling argument why this should not be the case and an alternative licensing model proposed.

42. Further consideration will be given to mechanisms for sharing ICT products and architectural components as part of the ICT transformation work which the Scottish Executive is taking forward under its public service reform agenda.[7]

I’ve carefully kept in the heading of this section of the policy statement because these two points represent the complete “next steps” of this report. But now in May 2012, I am not aware that these points have been taken forward at all in any area of the Public Sector in Scotland. Unaware of this, I had a very similar policy in my “Alternative ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland”[8]. Sadly the first in an unfulfilled policy and the second is just a dream.

So how do we escape from standing still for the next ten years?

Let’s be clear to start, that the use of free and open source software in the public sector would save money. It would also open up opportunities for the private sector in Scotland to provide services to the public sector that have previously been exclusively delivered by multinational companies headquartered outside of Scotland and the UK. In other words, it opens up ways of reducing public spending without cutting jobs. It would transfer the profits of multinationals taxed outside of the UK to those of smaller companies that are based in Scotland and taxed in the UK.

Let’s also be clear that this is not in dispute, it is not new, it is well known, it has been recommended to the public sector for years and has been an unimplemented policy in Scotland for the last five years.

But unfortunately, the public sector does not appear to have the skills and leadership to understandstand how to deliver on these policies. So it tries to outsource the management to the very companies that would loose money if they implementing them.

Look at the current situation with Glow 2 (explained in the blog post “Glow2: Intranet or Ecosystem?"[9]). Rather than having a skilled public sector team manage the delivery of free software to schools in Scotland, it appears that the government has decided to try and pass everything onto Google and Microsoft. It no-doubt feals more comfortable with the idea of a large company with seemingly limitless resources making the decisions rather than the Scottish Government. It’s also hard for central government to manage these things because they have progressively outsourced all the skills they would have needed to do it in-house. A situation that was recognised in Westminster last year[10] just as Scotland’s report on the delivery of ICT[11] was recommending greater outsourcing.

Discussions about procurement often focus on the lack of an “intelligent customer” function within Government to enable it to engage effectively with external suppliers and stakeholders. The Government’s inability to act as an intelligent customer seems to be a consequence of its decision to outsource a large amount of its IT operations to the private sector.[10]

“Shiny Granite”—a whole knew world leading school building infrastructure for Scotland

Let’s put this in more general terms for those less familiar with the technological issues. Let’s imagine for a moment that Glow isn’t an ICT infrastructure for schools but instead the actual physical school infrastructure for Scotland. Let’s call it “Shiny Granite”.

So re-writing history we find that Scotland has invested lots of public money in paying a private company to build new buildings for every school in Scotland. The work started in 2005 and by 2007 it was launched with school children gradually moving over to the new buildings. The management team said how wonderful and world-leading this was despite the fact that the schools were old refurbished buildings and weren’t designed for easy access. Some schools were without accommodation for 5 years.

Then, in this history re-write the government needed to decide what to do next, because the “Shiny Granite” buildings were owned by the private company, not the public. So in September 2012 there won’t be any school buildings in Scotland anymore and we’ll have to buy some new ones. Naturally, this makes the government a little nervous and they decide to rent from now on, which in changing times isn’t a bad idea. Indeed it’s a particularly good idea because the suppliers are offering the properties rent-free!

So, does the government compare the offerings and choose the best buildings? No, it tells the companies that they have to enter a competition to win the chance to rent their properties for free. Oh, and in addition they want the companies to promise to move and accommodate lots of the important property and equipment from the old buildings to the new but they can’t say what and how much. Oh, and they would like the companies to use a completely different security firm in Scotland to their own.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the company (Google) which already has well equiped tried and tested buildings ready and waiting to be used has decided that it should focus on doing what it does well[12]. It would seem that it feels that when it is giving something away for free it doesn’t really make sense to be spending time competing for the priviledge.

In reality I don’t know the details of what is actually going on right now. But it doesn’t take an expert to realise that the current situation is a mess and the clock is ticking.

How is it that in a country full of talent and expertise the Scottish Government can’t assemble a team of experts with the vision and leadership to take this mess and transform it into the success it can and should be?

  1. Richard Smedley, “The Price of freedom”, Central Government, Spring 2004(http://m.publicservice.co.uk/article.asp?publication=Central%20Government&id=125&content_name=IT%20and%20e-Government&article=2965).  ↩

  2. Glow (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/usingglowandict/glow/)—“Glow is the world’s first national online community for education”.  ↩

  3. Glow, “The story so far” (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/usingglowandict/glow/whatis/storysofar/index.asp).  ↩

  4. Cabinet Secretary for Education Michael Russell discusses the future of Glow. Video and transcript: http://www.engageforeducation.org/2011/09/the-future-of-glow/.  ↩

  5. “Open Source Software Trials in Government (Final Report)”, Office of Government Commerce, October 2004 (http://www.epractice.eu/files/media/media_540.pdf).  ↩

  6. “Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study”, International Institute of Infonomics, University of Maastricht, The Netherlands, Section 2.2. (http://www.flossproject.org/report/Final-2b.htm).  ↩

  7. “Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Scottish Policy Statement: A Report by the Open Source Software Working Group”, March 2007. (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/04/10104126/0).  ↩

  8. Stuart Roebuck, “The Alternative ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland”, April 2012 (http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/alternative-ict-strategy-for-public.html).  ↩

  9. Theo Kuechel, “Glow2: Intranet or Ecosystem?”, 11 May 2012 http://theok.typepad.com/digital_signposts/2012/05/there-is-a-fundamental-debate-taking-place-in-scotland-at-the-moment-with-regard-to-the-next-implementation-of-glow-scotland.html.  ↩

  10. “Government and IT — ‘a recipe for rip-offs’: time for a new approach, Twelth Report of Session 2010–12”, House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 27 July 2011. (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-administration-select-committee/publications/)  ↩

  11. John McClelland, “Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland”, June 2011 (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/06/15104329/0).  ↩

  12. Google’s letter, pulling out of the tendering process, 2 May 2012, http://mimanifesto.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/20120502-161203.jpg.  ↩

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