UK Government struggles with a simple word – “open” (finally, a real debate!)

I took part today in the UK Government Cabinet Office’s first roundtable meeting organised as part of its consultation on the role of open standards in government IT policy.

The word “open” is peppered around quite liberally, usually with the intention of it being understood as un unequivocally ‘good thing’ (see my previous post for more on this) but for once some thorough attention was being paid to its real meaning and consequences by such a range of stakeholders.

The issue arises because it is the UK government’s intention (or, more precisely, the Cabinet Office’s mission) to mandate the use of ‘open standards’ in future technology procurement guidelines. What became rapidly clear almost from the kick off of the meeting was that precision in terms, even as basic as ‘open’, could be a mixed blessing: however one defines ‘open’ or ‘open standard’ there is a risk not only of getting it wrong (in relation t the particular purpose you have in mind) but actually ending up being quite closed! If you insist that a certain open standard MUST be complied with in any bid for a particular piece of work, you risk excluding bidders who can actually get the job done.

Everyone at the meeting supported the greatest possible use of open standards – that commitment was not in question – but the issue was about how this is achieved in practice. The concern expressed by nearly all was that being overly prescriptive would actually narrow choice and not necessarily improve the quality or price of IT goods and services delivered to government.

A straw poll in the meeting was revealing – in response to the statement that mandating specific open standards (as proposed in the draft government policy) would be beneficial to competition and innovation, only two participants concurred. Everyone else including, tellingly, all the other government departments represented at the meeting disagreed. One government representative put it most succinctly: insisting that public officials decide on bids based on a mandated and restrictive list of approved standards would “limit the work [of public officials] in making informed choices”, which often means taking into account many other factors including reducting IT costs, removing barriers to access and delivering better public services.

One of the two participants who argued in favour of mandating specific standards used an interesting analogy to make his case: “if you want to build a motorway infrastructure, you need to choose one system – you can’t have competing motorways. It would be a mess.” Indeed but, as I hinted at in the meeting, you have to be careful about the analogies and metaphors you choose as they can be turned against your own argument: some people would actually argue in favour of competing motorway systems – it has been a familiar argument of proponents of toll roads in the UK – but more fundamentally, the issue for people wating to move around is how to get from A to B: a single motorway system may indeed b a good idea; but often we want to use other roads; and not necessarily use a private car but prefer a bus; or a taxi; or go by bicycle; or walk…

The point I make here is that we might feel that we have “the answer” to “the problem” but it may be looking at the problem at the wrong level of granularity. Sure, you want a single coherent set of standards to build your motorways but that shouldn’t exclude other standards being used to solve your problem (of getting from A to B) in a different way.

Without wishing to question that participant’s own motives, I was left in no doubt that if he had his way, he would choose standards that favour open source solutions – that would favour one business model to the exclusion of many others. It really is an example of the sarcastic statement in the standards world of “Of course we support open standards – so we’re going to use mine”. We would have his motorways and because it was ‘obvious’ that we had a single motorway infrastructure, all other modes of transport to achieve the real objectives, would be excluded. Not so much, “my way or the highway” as – my was is the highway.

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3 Responses to UK Government struggles with a simple word – “open” (finally, a real debate!)

  1. Chris says:

    Not really a good analogy. If you do build roads then you need all sorts of standards mandated for maximum effectiveness – traffic lights, road signs, road markings and so on. Similarly if I do railways i’d better mandate the railway gauge. A mandate on how I build and operate a platform – road or rail may say nothing how about higher level use – taxis or private car, or turn up and go versus timetable or the other platform. Of course I may need to ensure the same platform is available everywhere and not wish to replicate my investment by building both roads and rails everywhere.

    • Peter says:

      Chris,
      It wasn’t my analogy! In the article I actually say (and said at the meeting) “you have to be careful about the analogies and metaphors you choose as they can be turned against your own argument”.
      I actually agree with you. As you say, you “need all sorts of standards” – that was my point: not just a single standard. If we did take the metaphor further – even if we had a single (set of) standards for a particular infrastructure (be it road, rail, etc) would we mandate a single type of vehicle to use that infrastructure? or rather a set of standards that any vehicle should adhere to if it wants to use the infrastructure? That was really my point – does that make more sense?

      • Chris says:

        Possibly, in fairness the analogy has been as much abused. The issue is, in the context of the consultation, about interoperability. So the ‘railway as a platform’ is not bad, just as it says nothing about a particular exploitation of that platform – the type of carriage. You do have mandates for interoperability standards both for interoperabilty and investment efficiency. You get a wider range or railway carriages if you only have one railway gauge. To extend the analogy that way – one railway investor (public sector) chooses one railway gauge that minimises the cost of others developing railway carriages (an open standard). In and of itself it says nothing about other investors and other gauges. So yes – one would only do mandates at the level that made sense – between things. Unlike road and rail in software that level is often the higher rather than lower level owing to its overlay on general purpose computing.

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