Frequently asked questions
During the course of the consultation people have asked for clarification on specific points raised by the consultation. A summary of these questions and responses is included here.
The Open Standards: Open Opportunities consultation focuses on open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT specifications. The consultation does not cover the specification of broader information and communications technology standards, such as hardware or telecommunications.
Q1: What evidence is there that there is currently a lack of a level playing field?
As early as 2005, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that just 11 companies were providing 80% of public sector business in the IT sector [source: House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Twenty-Seventh Report, Session 2004-05, 6 April 2005]. This market domination by a small ‘oligopoly’ is a long-standing problem that the Government is determined to address.
See the recent Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report on government IT, including evidence from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and cloud providers at: http://bit.ly/pascuseit for additional information.
The proposed policy is seeking to ensure IT requirements are rooted in user needs expressed in terms of capability and the associated open standards, rather than procuring specific technologies and solutions.
(See also Q2.)
Q2: What examples are there of lock-in to current suppliers?
A recent example of the impact of purchasing bundled services from a single supplier is discussed in Computer Weekly.
Bundling of services, combined with a lack of transparency and interoperability, restricts procurement options for different products and suppliers to be selected by the Government. The proposed policy would provide a way to deliver the interoperability required for a component-based service approach rather than a bundled approach. This would be to the advantage of all suppliers in an open competitive market.
Such issues have resulted in an inability to disaggregate, switch or compete on the basis of user needs. This loss of choice and competition can lead, for example, to the Government being obliged to pay for upgrades to new versions of software not because it wants them to meet new user needs, but because suppliers stop supporting older versions that are perfectly adequate.
As an example, one central government department has over 200 business applications, many of which have been developed, tested and have a direct dependency upon a specific product, preventing the department from migrating to any alternative or more competitive offerings. This scenario, of effective lock-in to a specific product, has been identified in multiple departments across government.
The proposed policy is intended to ensure that, through open standards, a single supplier’s products are not the only products that can be used by the Government or the consumers of its information/services and that there is flexibility in what and when the Government chooses to buy.
Academic evidence demonstrates that “… the greater the power of the IT industry, the less effective the performance of government IT has been.” [source: Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., Tinkler, J. Digital Era Governance. Oxford University Press, 2008 (p130)].
Q3: How will open standards help improve government IT?
The Government has been purchasing technology rather than services based on user needs; it has become locked into proprietary standards and processes controlled by the supplier. This has resulted in the absence of an open market, leaving Government in a weak commercial and technical position. The Government is seeking to set out its requirements and the open standards required to ensure interoperability, to avoid lock-in and to enable switching between suppliers and/or products.
By establishing an open standards policy, the Government is seeking to create a platform that would enable it to be agnostic and plural in its approach to technology, suppliers, and commercial arrangements. Such an approach would help to restore the Government to a position of commercial strength.
Q4: What difference would the policy make to services that exist today?
The intention is not to second guess solutions: that is part of the current problem, with specific solutions being procured without actually understanding user needs and making procurement decisions based on the necessary capabilities to meet those needs.
The proposed policy is seeking to ensure IT requirements are rooted in user needs expressed in terms of capability and the associated open standards.
Q5: To be considered an open standard, is the Government proposing that all criteria in its definition should be applied (i.e. each standard must pass all five criteria)?
The consultation document states that, once set, the Government may consider weighting the importance of each of the criteria defining an open standard when considering open standards for adoption.
Additionally, the proposed policy is not an absolute mandate; it sets out a “comply or explain” approach. If all of the criteria can be met, that would be the preferred option but the proposed policy explicitly recognises that this would not always be the case.
Q6: How will the standards process work?
The process for considering the selection of standards will be open. Public engagement will be encouraged through the Standards Hub (currently a beta test site).
The criteria for assessment are being informed by the consultation. A governance structure led by an Open Standards Board, chaired by the Deputy Government Chief Information Officer, will be put in place to consider recommendations relating to the adoption of standards.
Some indicative activities were described in a recent call for volunteer board members and board advisers for the Open Standards Board. These were activities that the Board might be involved with, depending on the outcome of the consultation. However, the formal terms of reference will not be agreed until the consultation process has concluded and the open standards policy and criteria have been put in place.
Q7: How will this impact the behaviour of the public sector as a buyer/consumer of IT software?
The proposed policy is from the perspective of government as an IT customer. It is intended to ensure that the Government expresses user needs in terms of required capabilities that are in turn based on open standards. This would help to ensure that there is no advantage to incumbent suppliers arising from specifying a locked-in solution and inadvertently preventing new market entrants or other competitors from being able to compete for government IT contracts.