When the Greater London Authority, a city-wide body, started to look at free and open source software they had little to learn from other levels of British government. The pace of adoption has been glacial in the UK, despite recent interest in open data. Having rolled out cost-saving open source technology for some back-office systems and web sites, the GLA has found that partnership across the wider public sector introduces the biggest barriers. The need for government bodies to interface with each other has held back the aspirations of the UK's open source action plan.
The British Government and public bodies were slow in recognizing the benefits of free and open source software; it took until 2004 for the publication of the first very vague policy document promoting it. Here in London there's little sign of progress six years on, as exposed by this question from politician Darren Johnson. In February he asked the Mayor of London how "the Greater London Authority and functional bodies [are] implementing the Government's open source action plan, recently re-issued by the Cabinet Office". Those "functional bodies" work on different parts of London's city governance: economic development, transport, policing, and fire and emergency services.
With the notable exception of the Greater London Authority (GLA) itself, which has "led the way in the use of Open Source Technology", the careful answers from wider group of functional bodies betray the lack of movement. The London Development Agency "has not implemented any open source software to this point"; the Metropolitan Police Authority "review opportunities for the use of open source software... as part of their ongoing programme of continuous improvement"; Transport for London "eagerly awaits further direction as it emerges from Government".
A follow-up request by Johnson for proactive, published action plans from each of the bodies in the GLA Group was met with another vague promise to "review the Open Source plans of all the functional bodies with a view to encouraging greater take-up and increasing the level of savings."
Open source technology in the GLA
The GLA's Technology team support the elected Mayor, Assembly, and
approximately 700 staff, who in turn serve a capital city of 7.56 million people. While desktop users will mostly see the standard Microsoft offering — Windows XP, Internet Explorer, Office 2003 — much of the back-office kit in the basement has long run using Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
The GLA also started to use Drupal for building web sites, starting with a few custom-made interactive web sites such as the open Datastore and the public consultation for the Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. More recently, the main GLA web site moved over to Drupal, drawing the attention of the London Assembly committee tasked with scrutinizing the GLA's budget. Why? Because they were able to drop a web site project that had run up a bill of £1.2m using proprietary software and moved over to a new Drupal web site that cost £150k.
Drupal offered other benefits in addition to the low price tag. Drupal's
extensive library of modules, which enable them to easily offer more
interactive web 2.0 sites, made it the most attractive option from a
technical point of view. This wasn't the case in 2006, when the GLA
couldn't find an open source Content Management System (CMS) that was
sufficiently powerful. According to evidence
[PDF] laid out to the London Assembly committee by Daniel Ritterband, the GLA's Director of Marketing, Drupal offered other long-term advantages:
In 2009 the GLA had to make a decision on whether or not it was going to continue with a project that would keep it tied into a contract with a proprietary CMS that has relatively high development costs and a limited number of support agencies in the UK, or whether or not it should start again on a free, open source platform used by millions of people globally, which would deliver better long-term value to Londoners.
David Munn, GLA Head of Technology, is certain that cost has been the major driver in these changes, and not just in the obvious headlines such as web site procurement costs. Virtualization not only reduced the hardware and electricity bills for the servers, but also reduced the need for air conditioning by two-thirds. This change also hugely reduced their carbon emissions, following a report into the total lifecycle impacts of their IT that was finished last year. The high level of scrutiny from the elected Assembly, the media, and the public forces them to bear down on costs and reduce their carbon emissions.
Within the GLA the IT Strategy barely mentions free and open source
software, although Munn is certain that the approach to reducing costs and
carbon emissions strongly favors it. Adoption of Linux and Drupal has
largely come about because of his enthusiasm for open source, which is shared by a few other key members of staff.
Barriers to open source in the public sector
While back-office systems and web sites have been easy, progress elsewhere has been much slower.
Munn's Technology team has to enable GLA staff to work with the other functional bodies in the GLA group. Microsoft Sharepoint was deployed to share project rooms across organizations, for example. The Mayor's Office also need ready access to Transport for London's CCTV network so that they can be fully involved in any emergency situations.
The other functional bodies have their own complex relationships. The Metropolitan Police, for example, link up with 42 other territorial police forces, the national Government and a complex tapestry of other law enforcement agencies. The Police manage a poorly understood suite of databases held by multiple agencies that are accessed using custom-made software; they typically exchange basic information using quite complex Microsoft Office documents that OpenOffice.org struggles to work with; and have a range of custom software for specialized needs such as the forensic services. So far, they claim, open source technology hasn't met their needs.
These complex needs make a move to open source software difficult for the GLA as well, due to their need to interface with the Metropolitan Police. Munn and his team did consider rolling OpenOffice.org out across their desktops, but the probable backlash from staff who might, for example, struggle to work with complex Microsoft Office documents outlining police budgets running to hundreds of pages outweighed the cost savings it would achieve.
Another problem that forces the GLA's hand is the move towards "shared
services", where different public bodies run off the same technology
platform in order to "provide the GLA Group with a more concerted and
cost-effective approach to serving London" (according to an internal
GLA document). For example, the GLA has recently moved onto Transport for
London's procurement and finance systems. Transport for London (TfL), who run the Tube, other parts of the public transport network, and the main road network, is substantially larger than the GLA, with some 20,000 staff managing more than 27 million journeys a day. When TfL procured those systems it went for robust, industry-standard proprietary technology. Again, they claim that open source technology hasn't met their needs.
Now the GLA is locked into these systems, with a dedicated fibre-optic cable running between the two buildings.
The GLA did investigate downsizing their in-house Technology team and sharing TfL's services, but found it would be considerably more expensive. Their small size allows them to stay nimble and low-cost, in comparison with the complexity and caution implied by the size of TfL. Had they switched, they would in all likelihood have shut down the Linux-based back-office systems and moved onto TfL's proprietary stack.
Munn sees cloud computing as a possible way of levering in more open source software in the future. He observed that younger staff will increasingly be familiar with cloud technology suites from the likes of Google, and will find the idea of the full Microsoft office suite on the computer an anachronism. Where those cloud stacks are open source, or where they break up the stranglehold that Microsoft and other proprietary vendors have, we might see progress. But they could equally see a shift from one proprietary platform to another.
In the meantime, it seems that free and open source technology won't move into the front office of the British public sector until central government forces everyone's hand, overcoming network effects that prevent bodies like the GLA from moving first.
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