THE UK GOVERNMENT spends a fortune on proprietary technology, despite its vow to create a level playing field for open source as part of a drive to cut costs.
This was discovered by the BBC when it filed a Freedom of Information request investigating the government's practices with respect to software procurement.
According to the BBC, cabinet office minister Francis Maude has vowed to change the civil service mindset that has always preferred to spend money with the biggest firms and has been conservative about open source software.
The BBC said, "Now a BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) request has given us a glimpse of how big the challenge will be."
The BBC asked government departments for details about how much they had spent on proprietary software over the past year, and how much open source software they had acquired.
The Home Office provided the BBC with a detailed list of about £26m worth of proprietary software acquired over 18 months.
Of that, £21m went to just one business, Raytheon Systems for "IT, Broadcasting and Telecoms software".
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones said, "It seems extraordinary to push something like 80 [per cent] of your software budget to one provider - but who knows whether an open-source supplier could have provided a product that would have done the job?"
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence was unable to provide a breakdown but said its biggest IT organisation DE&S ISS spent £40.7m on procuring software between February 2009 and March 2011.
The BBC asked Stuart Mackintosh of the open-source firm OpusVL, who is on a cabinet office committee advising on how open source might best be promoted in Whitehall, for his view on what the documents revealed.
Mackintosh thinks there is a big cultural problem because, while civil servants know how to deal with big firms like Microsoft and have existing relationships with them, they don't know how to start with open source. "How do you buy something that's free?" he asked. "It's the job of people like me to help them work it out."
Mackintosh added that by outsourcing so much of its IT operations, Whitehall has lost the ability to understand what might work.
Meanwhile Opsview product manager James Peel said, "There is a stigma around open source software but there shouldn't be. The reality is it's just software - some of it good, some of it bad. The key is to evaluate the technology before signing up - just as you would any piece of software. The problem is that too many people think the best software is the most expensive software. As a result they end up wasting money on expensive proprietary technology." µ