03 February 2009 | Jake Kanter
The Conservative party would radically reform government IT contracting in a bid to save £600 million.
A report from shadow chancellor George Osborne predicted a future Tory government could significantly reduce costs by using more open-source software. The announcement follows a study by Cambridge academic Mark Thompson. It found this approach would not only reduce licensing costs, but also free up government departments from long-term agreements with suppliers that hold a "monopoly" over spending decisions. The research also called for cross-government standards for IT to make open-source providers more competitive in tenders.
Open-source software is developed and modified by communities of developers, rather than a single company. A well-known example is the web browser Firefox.
The Conservatives believe a new approach would ensure there are no more "IT white elephants" and government IT contracts would not exceed £100 million in the future. The party said smaller projects would mitigate delays and failures, and cut costs by increasing competition.
The proposals have received a tentative welcome from IT experts. But they cautioned it would be up to buyers to make them successful.
Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at IT consultancy Ovum, said he had the "deepest respect" for open-source software, but buyers should only purchase it on a "case-by-case" basis. He explained purchasers would need to pay for additional support services if they want to implement open-source technology effectively. Nick Kalisperas, director of IT sector membership group Intellect, added that open-source software should only be bought if it meets the requirements of stakeholders.
But Graham Taylor, chief executive of not-for profit campaign group OpenForum Europe, said European governments were using the technology, and its use in the UK could achieve the £600 million savings target.
The OGC said procurement rules mean open-source software should be evaluated against more traditional IT ownership. Buyers should decide based on lowest cost of ownership, accounting for "capability, security, scalability and transferability".
The publication of the proposals coincided with the release of a damaging report by the Public Accounts Committee that was highly critical of problems with the much-maligned NHS National Programme for IT. Chairman Edward Leigh MP said problems with suppliers meant essential systems were late, cost estimates were "unreliable", and when the IT is deployed it does not meet expectations of NHS staff.