Opinion: It’s time to open-source the Big Society

By Dries Buytaert
02 Mar 2012 View Comments
Dries Buytaert

The government’s Big Society initiative has much in common with the philosophy that underpins the open-source community, which has delivered innovative solutions through collaborative working.

This empowerment for the greater good fits perfectly with the government’s agenda to enable individuals, charities and communities to work together to improve society. So it is ironic that the open-source community involvement in the UK public sector is lagging so far behind other European countries, such as France.

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Granted, there are some examples of open-source adoption: Drupal is the chosen platform for the Cabinet Office and the london.gov.uk site. But these are still in the minority when compared to the use of proprietary software vendors.

To its credit, the government recently launched the first formal open-source toolkit of guidance and advice to help decision makers weigh up the pros and cons of open-source adoption. This level playing field should enable developers to gain a foothold in delivering public-sector projects and allow them to be evaluated equally against the more traditional software providers.

But the advantages that open source can bring to the public sector do not simply lie in the collaborative benefits. These solutions are licence-free, meaning hard-pressed government IT chiefs will be liberated from the costs of licensing that often lead to overspend on projects. Open source is also backed up by a community of loyal developers, working on new modules, testing for and resolving bugs, and delivering better upgrades on a regular basis.

It was recently noted that cultural barriers are often a key cause for limited uptake of open source in the public sector. This approach has become entrenched over the years as procurement teams relied on the same expensive contracts, from the same expensive vendors. But this problem can be solved if open-source providers package up their solutions with the standard of sales, support and ecosystems expected from traditional software vendors.

As the public sector seeks innovative and cost-effective solutions, there has never been a better time for open source developers to make their mark. But this can only be achieved if the government recognises the value open source can bring to the Big Society agenda.

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