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Tories regurgitate open source opportunism

Thrice ruminated spin gives bad dose of wind
Wed Jan 28 2009, 09:15

THE CONSERVATIVE Party's endorsement of Open Source software has started looking tired now they have repeated it for the third time in two years without actually committing it to policy.

Tech journalists obediently ran with a story yesterday that the Conservatives were chewing over a report by Cambridge University Academic Mark Thompson that recommended reforming public procurement and adopting open source software. The Tories had circulated what was said to be the draft executive summary of Thompson's report, which they were considering "taking forward". But the report is now so old it has grown its own Unix beard.

The draft summary, touted to The INQ by a Conservative insider as something new, claimed shadow chancellor George Osborne had invited Thompson to write the report "in a Speech to the RSA in March 2008 ", implying that it had just been delivered.

Yet Thompson delivered his report to Osborne in 2007, a full year before the date Osborne said that he requested it. It was originally due to be published in June of that year, a mere two months after Osborne actually publicly announced that he had requested it, at a speech to the RSA in March 2007.

Thompson told the INQ yesterday that the report had been revised a number of times in the last two years, but the key recommendations remained the same as they were in 2007: "I made the recommendations in 2007. I thought they'd gone quiet on it. The recommendations are largely the same," he said.

The Conservatives revived Thompson's report to coincide with a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee pronouncement yesterday, which was that the National Programme for IT (NPfIT), the government's ill-famed £12.7 billion NHS computer system, was on the brink of failure. Thompson's report, which in 2007 recommended  that gargantuan IT projects like NPfIT should be exchanged for smaller systems, was just the ticket. With a botoxed date it even looked like new.

"We have led the debate on using open source software in government, and I'm delighted that Dr Mark Thompson has come forward with these recommendations," said Osborne in the summary of Thompson's report yesterday. "The Conservative Party is looking to the future."

After Thompson did come forward with the recommendations in 2007, the Conservatives never bothered to publish them. Osborne and Cameron spoke grandly about Open Source in 2007 when it was flavour of the month. But the policy based on Thompson's recommendations never materialised.

"These independent recommendations will now be considered by the Treasury team and the Conservative Party's Implementation part of our detailed preparations for government," said the botoxed report summary. The UK's Open Source community have heard this before.

That's not to say the Conservatives aren't serious about the ideas. Their latest pronouncement shows some consistency at least. One of the key recommendations Thompson made in 2007, for example, was that if the government reformed its procurement regime and made it more amenable to small and open source suppliers, it could save £600 million a year. This was also the first key recommendation listed in the botoxed summary touted to journalists yesterday.

Funnily enough, it was also the key recommendation made by Osborne himself in the RSA speech of March 2007 before, we are told, the report had even been written. Yet Thompson said the figure was one of his recommendations. More amusing still, the £600 million figure was based on calculations already made by John Suffolk, the government's chief information officer.

It would be interesting to see the report. But Osborne's March 2007 speech gives a good guide to what Thompson's report subsequently found: "A level playing field for open source software...small companies [on] government standards...more effective procurement...[end of] long-term, monopoly supply situations...building public sector capability...overhauling procurement rules."

All music to Open Source ears. But Osborne is still only saying that the Conservatives are thinking about an Open Source policy*. "Before we take these ideas forward," he said in the botoxed report, "we want to hear your views".

The Open Source community still got rather excited yesterday when it got wind of the report. But that's all the Conservative Open Source policy has consisted of so far: hot air. µ

* Reports in the tech press of a Tory "proposal" to cap government IT spending at £100m per project were incorrect. The botoxed recommendations merely claimed that the sum of their proposals might have the consequence that big ticket IT projects were no longer required. To quote it precisely: "This means that the UK should never again need to sign an IT software contract worth over £100 million."


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