Govt Considers Open Source – again

The Guardian recently reported that Bill McCluggage of the Cabinet Office met with ICT suppliers and that he,

emphasised that the government wishes to see the industry offer more solutions based on open source, and listed a number of approaches that it expects it to follow. These include: evaluating open source solutions in all future proposals; including open standards and interoperability as key components in IT systems; and moving towards the use of open source as normal practice.

Will this make a real difference to the SME market? Well, my Leicester web design company is currently working with two district councils implementing a joint intranet using Joomla! They already use Drupal to power their website & plumped for Joomla! for the intranet to save even more money. We’ve also implemented Joomla! websites for a number of Probation Trusts.

So, some local government and public bodies are certainly willing to go down the open source route. But there are compromises that taking this road sometimes entail. Few Open Source content management systems will offer the same level of functionality that the high end enterprise level systems often offer. They can be added, like workflow in Joomla! or snapshots & rollback in Drupal, but these rarely come out of the box.

I recently read a tender document from another district council for a new CMS. Looking at the “Highly Desirable” list of functionality, it had the appearance of a requirements document that was written several years ago, when money was relatively plentiful. It is certainly not a “austerity” shopping list. As it stands, I don’t know of a single Open Source CMS that could meet these requirements “out of the box”. So, this district council will either have to buy a commercial package or pay for someone to heavily customise Plone, Drupal, Joomla or ….. (add your favourite Open Source CMS here). This could even make Open Source as expensive as a proprietary solution to deliver.

Perhaps a better way round now would be to employ someone to investigate what an Open Source CMS can deliver, and then negotiate the requirements in the light of what is available. As part of this process, the people responsible should also employ the red marker pen more judiciously. For example, instead of insisting that the CMS pre-checks content for accessibility before publication, they should ensure that editors are trained to write accessible content (one of the “Highly Desirable” functions referenced above). Technology is always a poor substitute for personal responsibility.

So, Open Source can be a viable option for local and central government, but they need to cut their clothe accordingly. Only then will the SME market stand a chance of delivering cost effective solutions. Otherwise I fear that it will be the big consulting firms who will deliver Open Source to government, with a price tag that benefits only themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Govt Considers Open Source – again

  1. Ahh. I agree many of the tech specs are a substitute for good governance. My feeling is that, in many cases, the way people want to publish has not been thought through. As web manager at NottsCC we are reducing the number of authors we have because we simply have too many poor ones and as a result quality suffers. I think the days of high end CMS are over if people really want local authority websites to improve. Much better to have a clear website and content strategy, and a few publishers then to have anybody publish, as this usually ends up with junior staff without the skills to put together good content or with the clout to say no!

  2. Totally agree Eddie, as we have all seen many times, people seem unable to seperate what is actually required from the bolt on goodies. I havent worked in the Local Government sector, so cant comment directly, but believe that this attitude is commonplace throughout anyone implementing CMS or any other software package.

    As opposed to the Red Pen, I have applied the MoSCoW method to requirements gathering. Much like your Red Pen, this entails categorising Must, Could, Should and Wont haves, against each requirement. Doing it once you get a certain reduction, but strangely if you do it a 2nd and 3rd time, more of the Musts Haves get downgraded getting you to a core set of deliverables.

    Its not the most efficient method, much better to know from the outset, but it works.

    That said, it will only work from within the organisation. When responding to a Tender Document everything is a Must Have and if you dont respond in that fashion then you wont get the work, which brings us nicely back to the point of your article !!!

  3. Yes Matt, we both know from experience that the quality of editors is variable!
    I’m amazed that so many councils will leave web content to the most junior and/or untrained members of staff. Comparably sized private companies employ marketing people to write their website copy, because it’s so important to get it right. Arguably its even more important with local government, that content is clear, concise and compact (less is more), since their target audience is so varied.

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