28th October 2016

The future of UK Government and open source

Asavin Wattanajantra
Marketing Manager
open source government

We’re proud of our status as an open source agency, and I was delighted to represent Deeson as part of the Drupal community at the OSCON conference in London.

Open source is huge, and it’s interesting to see how big business it has become (in a recent survey 78 per cent of companies said they ran open-source software). Alongside stalls representing Drupal and WordPress we saw ones dedicated to Perl, LibreOffice and the Software Freedom Conservancy, as well as international brands with their hands in open source such as Github, PayPal, IBM, SAP and Bloomberg.

There were interesting conversations and different points of view throughout the conference, but it was the role of open source in changing the public sector which felt extremely relevant to me, as well as the digital industry I’ve been part of for such a long time.

Open source change in UK Government

Speaking at OSCON London was Liam Maxwell, the UK Government National Technology Adviser - a 'digital czar' who reports into the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Maxwell spoke about how the UK Government is using open source to drive change. In 2009 it was spending far too much money, yet needed to be in a position where it was keeping up with new models of tech that were emerging. If the Government didn’t, ultimately it would be rendered irrelevant, because if you can’t build services for the people that consume them, you go out of business.

Back then, the UK Government had problems with the security and capability of its technology, as well as issues with procurement and a long tech legacy that it needed to move away from. It needed to move its whole ideology from ‘silos’ to ‘platforms’ - which was only possible through massive change.

So the UK Government agreed a code of practice and design principles, committing to open standards and opening up its data. In terms of procurement, it decided to innovate, expanding the marketplace for suppliers. In 2010, it had 12 companies - in 2015,  there were over 300 companies in its supply chain, all around the UK.

The Government of the internet

Maxwell said that now change has been ‘unlocked’ with open source, it’s about competition, because with true competition the best service and people will win. That means there is a much higher adoption of open source in UK Government - to the extent that it’s a standard. The goal is to be a 'Government of the internet', one that’s relevant to its citizens.

Maxwell said, “Five years ago people might have had the worst views of open source - insecure, something which would never last. If you needed to be safe and secure, you would go to our big proprietary friends.

“Now you see one of the world’s largest technology companies hotly embracing open source. It also means that we have SME engagement, allowing more innovation and getting things built quickly and effectively without imposing huge amounts of friction."

Maxwell said that for 25 years the UK Government had been building technology silos. Now it’s replaced that with a platform-based approach, sharing and building services without the friction. Obviously its something which takes time and an enormous amount of trust, but as Deeson has seen for the last few years, it’s something which is certainly happening in front of our eyes.

Open source increases competition

Also speaking at OSCON was Chi Onwurah, a British Labour Party Shadow Minister and qualified electrical engineer. She described herself as the closest thing to a developer there was in the House of Commons, with ten years experience developing software with C++, Pascal and various proprietary programming languages.

Onwurah said that she was absolutely awake to the potential of open source - although she’s used operating systems from Microsoft and Apple, her heart belonged to Unix because it was the last time she could fully trace, follow and understand the software that was running her life. Unix wasn’t open source, but it was transparent and accessible. With technology, she wanted a sense of participation and ownership, without people necessarily having to be experts to get it. And she believed open source could contribute to that.

The MP talked about the benefits of competition, using the example of Microsoft, a powerful organisation that other companies can compete with some thanks to open source - it has to make its Office documents available in an open format for example. Onwurah said she wanted the same thing to happen with other monopolistic firms like Uber and Facebook.

Can open source power the fourth industrial age?

Being a Labour politician, it was predictable that Onwurah would have a contrarian viewpoint to Maxwell, in stating she didn’t believe open source technology and thinking was making inroads into existing UK Government departments fast enough, and even less so at local level.

For example, she wanted to see open source supporting a progressive industrial strategy with more collaborative working, the redistributing and editing of code to make it more personalised for what individual consumers and citizens needed, the lowering of costs, and a framework where people owned and controlled their own digital tools and data - a digital rights framework which currently doesn’t exist.

She said, “There’s no part of the economy which isn’t run through or tandem with software. A more participatory software world is a huge opportunity, particularly with small businesses. We certainly need more skills and digital talent in place. With opportunities such as AI, robotics and the Internet of Things, what could open source mean?.

“The algorithms managing and controlling how we’re engaging and interacting with people and work… can we have open source algorithms? And can we have a framework for supporting and enabling them?."

There was also a job of exciting policy makers about the opportunities of open source. Onwurah said this wasn’t happening, with a Digital Economy Bill going through the House of Commons that didn’t address it at all.

“I’ve been asked to comment on the UK Government’s lack of a digital strategy. Why is that? It’s partially due to the average age of parliament and concerns/fear of technology, but it’s also due to the way in which industry engages with policy makers. What can we do to make the discussion around data, transparency and algorithms better?."

Deeson and the public sector

As an open source company, we make a concerted effort to engage with the public sector as it continues to adopt open source. Deeson’s services can be found on the latest version of G-Cloud, which is a centralised place where public sector bodies can search for digital services across a number of disciplines.

We’ve worked with a number of well-known public sector organisations over the years. This includes an ongoing relationship with the National Crime Agency (NCA), which found us through G-Cloud. We redesigned the parents and carers section of the thinkuknow.co.uk website, which is a safety centre that allows young people to report online safety issues and an events and resources portal for professionals. We also provided strategy, user experience and creative services.

We've also worked with the Equality & Human Rights Commission. Deeson audited its existing site from a technical and user experience perspective, and went on to build a new multi-lingual site designed around the needs of its users.

Open-source software is central to the UK government’s commitment in delivering high-quality digital services, and with the technology we work with, particularly Drupal and WordPress, we’re very excited about the future.