Open Gov Summit #opengovsum

This morning I dragged my weary self to the bus stop at 06.15 to get the 07.01 train to London – for some of you I realise this seems like no major achievement – however for me it was something of a miracle!

The reason behnd this early start was the Open Government Summit (organised by the team at Zaizi) which I was lucky enough to stumble across on Twitter and grab a ticket for. Unfortunately I was only going to be able to make the morning sessions so wanted to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

After the introductions Tariq Rashid (who sports the rather impressive title of Lead Architect – Information, Applications, Infrastructure, Open Standards, Open Source at the Home Office) started the day talking about the status of open source software in the UK Government. It was an interesting talk with a few particularly useful takeaways;

– The policy is not to enforce a certain % of open source uptake in the public sector – it is however designed to ensure there is a level playing field and that open source solutions are always considered.

– The idea that the ‘customer gets what they deserved’ and that it is a failing of the people specifying and procuring the products that open source has taken so long to make in-roads in the UK. There has been a culture & history in feeling safe with expensive systems backed by large ‘systems integrators’.

– There is a ‘Open Source Software Options for Government‘ document that gives examples of ‘proven’ open source alternatives to a number of software types available from the Open Source Procurement Toolkit which is designed to help people realise the breadth of the optuions out there. Also to help challenge existing suppliers!

– Perhaps the most important comment that came out of it was the statement from CESG (who are the guardians of information security for the UK Gov) which I had briefly seen before but didn’t get it written down;

Open source as a category is no more or less secure than closed proprietary software.

Tariq was an impressive speaker who clearly believed in the role of open source (and continued to ask insightful questions and add comments throughout the morning) so it got the day off to a good start.

Next up was a flying visit from Mr Mark O’Neill from the Government Digital Service. I’ve seen Mark speak before and previously he was known for having the most CIO jobs at one time in Whitehall but now seems to have settled down into just one job; Proposition Director for Innovation and Delivery at GDS.

Mark spoke a little about about the mission of GDS – one that is beyond just creating a few pretty websites but rather the ‘end to end transformation public services’! This includes fixing processes, operating models, infrastructure, culture, skills and alot else. Not much then chaps!

Mark stated that in the past UK Gov has tended to reinvent the wheel (and often that whell was square, gold-plated and five years late).

One of the [many] GDS principles is that they;

Do the same as successful people.

Which basically means speaking to providers of massive scale web providers and seeing what can be replicated.

The role of open source in allowing quick prototyping was also raised – being able to download software and actually try it out and experiment with it is vital to being able to work in an agile manner.

There was some talk about the e-petitions product and the fact that it was initially developed in just 6 weeks for £60k and now deals with up to 40 ‘signatures’ per minute. An API has been released and the code has been packaged up and added to Github.

As usual it was interesting to hear more about the work GDS are doing and also to get a slightly different perspective on it as I tend to follow the ‘single domain’ work most closely.

Unfortunately I missed the bulk of the Met Office talk due to a flurry of emails and a call. The one snippet that did break through though was the fact they had found it 3 to 4 times quicker to get contractors and interns up to speed with their open source software than the proprietary software they also run.

The final talk I was able to stay for was from Glyn Moody. I follow Glyn on Twitter and have read a fair bit of his journalism over the years but had never seen him in person til today. I’ve always admired his ideas around the open agenda but at times have found a little strident – especially on Twitter. However it was a pleasant surprise to discover he was much more measured and pragmatic in person.

He spoke alot about open standards and the current consultation (a topic the civil servants speaking earlier had carefully avoided!) and about the controvery surrounding it (potential lawsuits, lobbying, double-agents!). Time and time again it was reinforced how important this consultation was and the audeince was encouraged to have their say.

There was more talk about the need to create a level playing field for open source and also a nice line about how people get used to things and come to accept them as the default. *Everyone* knows that Government IT projects fail so *everyone* just accepts that!

He also raised the point that standards didn’t used to be ‘open’. In fact things like ISO now just look 20 years out of date as they have failed to grasp the changing environment in which they now exist.

All in all it was a really useful morning with thought-provoking talks in a nice environment. It was worth the early start and I think that speaks for itself.