Government ICT: the UK adopts open technology standards for all future IT projects

The UK government is drawing up a set of open technology standards that all future ICT projects will have to comply with. The news was announced by Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude. The Open Standards Principles came into effect on 1 November, 2012, and if successfully implemented should make future government ICT projects more open, cheaper and better connected. These new standards will dictate how data should be formatted and the ways that software should interoperate.

The Open Standards Principles have been developed following the public consultation ‘Open Standards: Open Opportunities – flexibility and efficiency in Government IT’ which took place between February and June this year. It is argued that the principles will help the Government to deliver more innovative IT services, drive further savings and encourage more competition for government contracts. The push for open standards will also build on earlier work to standardise the hardware on which government services are built. Speaking at the launch of this latest initiative, Mr Maude argued:

“For too long, government IT has been too expensive, over-specified and run in contract structures that encourage complexity, duplication and fragmented user services. It is only right that we are encouraging competition and creating a level playing field for all companies to ensure we are getting the best price for the taxpayer.”

“We know that there are more real savings to be made in Government IT contracts – in the first half of this year, we have already saved £409 million on ICT services. Government must be better connected to the people it serves and partners who can work with it – especially small businesses, voluntary and community organisations. Having open information and software that can be used across government departments will result in lower licensing costs in government IT, and reduce the cost of lock-in to suppliers and products.”

The standards the government wants to adopt will favour smaller, innovative tech firms and would demand compliance with open data formats and protocols from every IT supplier. At the moment open standards stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to proprietary formats: essentially as the name implies, open standards let everyone interested to look at how a program is built or data is formatted. The openness can also help to flush out bugs in software, and make it easier for data to travel and be re-used because programmers can easily see how it is structured.

From 1 November, any government departments applying for cash to bankroll IT projects must refer to open standards when drawing up their proposals. Departments and agencies could apply for an exemption, however, Mr Maude warned, that the process of winning one would be “challenging”. The UK’s desire to put more public services online has been held back in many instances because of the lack of common ways of working with data he said:

“At the moment we lag behind. For example, 74 percent of people use the internet for car insurance, yet only 51 percent buy car tax online. This is inefficient as digital channels are much cheaper than post, phone or face-to-face interactions.”

The government has already moved some way towards open technology. The infrastructure underpinning official IT was in the process of being standardised and some of the services that all departments use had been made available centrally. Mr Maude stressed that he was determined to take this further, and had begun work on the guidebook that would detail the open standards that departments and suppliers would be expected to work to.