I did mention as I got caught up in all this Tory attack nonsense that I was planning on writing an article that was critical of my own side. It’s a bit long-winded and requires some explanation, particularly that of a techie nature but bear with me there’s some interesting and important points to be made.
The genesis of this topic started when I received an e-mail encouraging me to sign a petition on No.10’s website. I don’t sign petitions as a rule and in all fairness this particular petition was poorly worded. However the good intention was there, it was something dear to my heart and I thought very valid to be raised.
Basically it was to encourage the Government to use Linux operating systems in Departments and the public sector in general.
Here’s why it wasn’t a particularly well phrased petition. It pretty much only mentioned Linux which to be fair is only one part of a wider use of Open Source Software (OSS) and I would agree that if the objective is to encourage the use of OSS in the public sector then there are far better places to start than simply trying to adopt Linux as an operating system.
Anyway as I’ve never signed one of these Downing Street petitions before I wasn’t aware that they send out responses but I was interested by the one that I got. Here it is:
“Government policy on Open Source Software (OSS) is available in the document “Open Source Software, Use within UK Government, Version 2.0, 28 October 2004″. This is available from www.govtalk.gov.uk. The policy is set out on page 4 of the document. In particular the Government will:
* Consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis;
* Only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments;
* Seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services; and
* Consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of commercial off the shelf (COTS) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.
The UK Government champions open standards and interoperability through the e-government interoperability framework (e-gif). This framework is available from the ‘govtalk’ web site. The ability to substitute one component for another removes the dependency on a single supplier and encourages competition – an essential for Transformational Government. Many authors of software embrace open standards and interoperability but do not wish to make their source code freely available; they should not be penalised.”
Me being the curious Penguin that I am decided to read through all the various documentation referred to and a few others as well.
Now on to a side issue where this becomes less an administrative issue and more a political issue.
The other day I was browsing through my site stats and picked up a referral from Technorati which looked interesting. Can’t remember what it was but I came up on the same page as Guido AKA Paul Delaire Staines.
As I don’t read his site I wouldn’t normally have picked up on it but had a little look. It was an interesting piece about George Osbourne talking up the benefits of OSS and to go with it Guido provided nice little graphical representations implying that the Labour Party was in some way in league with the evil empire of Microsoft compared of course to the open and wonderfully modern and forward thinking Tories.
Another side issue. I wanted to link to that post so dropped back the Paul Delaire Staine’s site tonight but couldn’t find it. There’s a simple reason. His site is complete and utter shite from a design/functional perspective. No category listings that aren’t present in posts on the front page, no hierarchical archives section to search by date and I didn’t spot a search function either. Purely from the perspective of a techie who designs websites with functionality as the core objective, I would be ashamed to put such a shoddy pisspoor site on the net but hey ho, back to the issue.
So Paul Delaire Staines did a piece talking up the Tories and doing down Labour, no surprise there then. However and this is why the ‘sort of…’ bit appears in the title of this post. I’d originally planned on giving my own side a bit of a drumming on this issue but it’s a bit more complicated than a straight fight against the evil empire of Microsoft, not that I would expect such a complex issue to be handled on Paul Delaire Staines site, he does afterall appeal to the Janet and John end of the political spectrum.
I’ve touched on a lot of the various issues before in this post so please refer to it if there’s any concepts you’re not familiar with.
Let’s run with the Tories good on OSS and Labour bad and we’ll split this into two categories. Use by the parties and use in Government when in power.
Use in Government first, that’s the easiest. Now OSS has been around for many years but it’s only been the last 5 or so years that it’s been hitting the mainstream for regular users. Prior to this any use of OSS has been determined by the techie bods behind the scenes and uses have been more concentrated on various server structures, e-mail systems etc, not your average desktop application that people actually use from day to day. Now because of this it’s hard to criticise the Tories for not implementing it when they were in power.
However, this was the period when a lot of the civil service used a particular Word Processor called WordPerfect which was systematically replaced by the Microsoft Office package throughout virtually every level of government departments so with all due respect to Paul Delaire Staines on this one, it’s a bit rich to accuse Labour as being under the power of the evil Microsoft when it’s those same Tories who he’s now espousing as the radical proponents of OSS who stuck the shit in the public sector to start with when there were perfectly acceptable and as most techies would probably agree, a far superior product being used to start with although it too was not OSS.
Labour have been in power for almost a decade and in fairness have done very little to either alter the situation as regards implementation of OSS solutions or promote it. However in October 2004 at least the Government published a paper on it’s use which is far more than the Tories ever did. Has anything been done about it, well I haven’t spotted anything particular from national level but there is some shift in local services. The most interesting is implementations in schools which as far as I can tell is being driven less from actual policy by individual local authorities and more from simple practical cost/benefit perspectives of individual schools where the onus on the change often comes down to the particular techie in question who’s been tasked with the implementation of IT systems.
The irony of this is that implementation in the public sector isn’t coming from top-down diktat but more from grassroots practical implementation on a local level to deal with the specific challenges and needs of the services in question.
The problem with implementation in the public sector is twofold. Firstly, large organisations invariably tend towards slow change over time, radical overhauls, particularly IT systems in the public sector tend not to be a good thing. People are happy with what they’ve been using for years, were trained on and have a suspicion of using new systems. Secondly what exactly are we talking about when we refer to using OSS in the public sector?
It’s not about sticking Linux on every desktop in every government department and local authority. There are a plethora of OSS applications out there that happily sit on Windows operating systems and I would be more inclined to agree that change there is where it is needed.
There’s only a few applications required for use in most aspects of the public sector, an office suite, e-mail client and web browser, not really that hard. Of these well the web browser isn’t of great significance from a cost perspective because it comes bundled with the operating system. However e-mail client and office suites are. A simple switch to openoffice.org and say Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client would save millions and unlike many switches of software, retraining costs are negligible. To be honest if any member of staff in the public sector can’t work out how to use openoffice.org after having used Microsoft Office then they have serious problems. The functionality, layout, style of the two applications are near on identical. Same is true for Thunderbird compared to Microsoft Outlook, looks a bit different but how hard is it to send an e-mail?
So there you go, a bit of criticism of the Labour Government for not pushing implementation where it could easily be done, but equally the Tories are to blame for many of the problems in the first place and I haven’t spotted a single Tory controlled local authority in the country about to embark down the road to IT enlightenment so we’ll put the George Osbourne thing down to a crap publicity stunt.
On to the parties actual usage then. After all if you’re going to espouse the use of OSS then one would assume you use it yourself. It’s a bit like telling people not to fly and then taking short haul trips that could easily be done by road. Or banging on about energy saving while burning shitloads of halogen bulb spots in your kitchen, that sort of thing.
Now one thing that came out of that Webcameron thing last week was a few hits from Tory Party HQ and please note, I’m going to say something complimentary about the Tories here. They use Firefox, an OSS web browser. Actually, all I know is that maybe one person in Tory HQ uses it but at least that’s one so for the record they get a tick box of approval on that one. Not sure what Labour or the LibDems use so can’t really offer an opinion there. Equally when it comes to operating systems and e-mail clients I really don’t know either but I’m going to hazard a guess they all use Windows with the odd Mac lying around for specific graphical and publishing work.
Here’s where we can get a picture of things though. Websites. Now I have no time to check out every single MP’s/Cllr’s/MEP’s website but from a bit of sampling here’s my conclusions. As regards elected members higher than Councillors I didn’t find a single one from the Tories or LibDems using an open source web system. I could be wrong, I’ll be happy to accept examples but from my mouch around the net I didn’t pick up on any. I found a fair few being used by Labour members, mainly it has to be said WordPress blogs although Harriet Harman has a Typo 3 front end with a WordPress blog tagged on to the back. When we get down to the Councillor level there’s a lot more Tories using open source stuff, again mainly WordPress but I didn’t spot a LibDem as they seem to often use some strange system that I’m assuming the party nationally set up for them.
On to the three main parties home websites. LibDems, looks like a bespoke system as does the Tories. Now of course I can only surmise from my own knowledge of scripting by looking at their source code but one usually finds that if a generator of some sort has been used it appears in the code. If however they have used OSS solutions or the companies they’ve employed to do their sites for them have and deliberately omitted it then that’s a big no no in the techiquette book. Labour on the other hand use a system called Typo 3 which is OSS, it clearly states it in the source code of the site and although I’m personally of the opinion that if you use OSS web solutions then you should also put it somewhere on your site, I won’t be too critical as it’s not a set requirement.
So there you go, Labour not so bad after all when it comes to the old OSS. I will qualify my statements above by saying that I used sample to derive these conclusions. I could quite easily have picked the wrong sites out and I’m happy to receive corrections or pointers in the direction of examples. I’m also really interested as I get a fair few hits from those working in the public sector of what you’re using at work. I’d like to do a bit more on this if I get enough responses to derive some serious data from so here’s what I would like to know. Here’s a few likely examples but please add others:
What operating system you’re using? Windows, Mac OS, Linux
What office package do you use? Microsoft, openoffice.org, Corel, Lotus
What web browser do you use? Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Netscape
What e-mail client do you use? Outlook, Thunderbird, Lotus
Feel free to post in the comments section although I know that people from political parties or the public sector might not wish to be identified then feel free to use the contact section and mail me. On this occasion all messages will be treated in strictest confidence and I won’t reveal anyone’s identity. If you could give indications like which party, which governmental department/local authority then that would help immensely. This for me isn’t really a party political issue, it’s more a personal campaign for better use of software in the public sector so I shan’t be using any of the data to have a pop at any party.