Andres Baravalle, Sarah Chambers, Siobhan North, Mike Holcombe
Department of Computer Science, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.
Keywords: Open Source Software, Open Data Standards, Public Administrations, United Kingdom.
Abstract: Open Source could potentially play an important role in e-Government. The COSPA project has been
investigating the possibilities of using Open Source in the desktops in Public Administrations in Europe.
During this two year project, the attitudes towards Open Source appeared to have differed in the UK
compared to similar organisations within some other countries in Europe. In this paper we investigate and
discuss possible causes of this.
This paper is based on research undertaken during
the COSPA project, “A Consortium for studying,
evaluating and supporting the introduction of Open
Source Software and open data standards in the
Public Administration”. The project, funded by the
European Union's Sixth Framework Programme,
includes 15 main partners from Academia, Industry
and public administrations across Europe.
The aim of the consortium is to identify, analyse
and provide support in dealing with issues arising
from introducing Open Source software and open
data standards for personal productivity and
document management in European public
administrations. The issues being considered include
the cost of data migration, interoperability and
integration with existing solutions, personnel
training, support and maintenance.
Even initially it was clear that not all the partner
public administrations had the same commitment to
carrying out the experiment planned to investigate
the potential use of Open Source. Within the project
some public administrations have been making
progress with trial transitions to Open Source, while
the progress of other public administrations has been
slow, or has almost stopped, as in the UK.
It was essential for the project that experimental
sites were available where a number of desktops
could be migrated, first to the use of Open Source
software within the operating system they were
already using and then, in a second phase by
replacing the operating system as well. In the UK
there were major problems in finding suitable
experimental sites for the project, whereas this was
not the case for the other partners countries within
the project.
SOCTIM, a professional association for
information and communication technology
managers in the UK public sector, was in charge of
providing experimentation sites in the UK.
Economical incentives for the participating public
administrations were available, and a call for
participation was publicised, but none of the
proposed projects were deemed acceptable.
As a consequently, the project had to be
restructured, and an interesting question arose: why
is it so hard to introduce Open Source on the
desktops of UK public administrations, compared
with the public administrations in other European
A variety of issues affect the decision of
adopting Open Source in the desktop (Kovaks et al.
2004). The following sections focus on the UK
experience and we will propose answers to our
The Open Source movement (Perence 1999) is an
offshoot of the Free Software movement (Stallman,
n.a.) and advocates the freedom to use, modify and
redistribute software, on both pragmatic and
philosophical grounds. As the two movements share
many points of contact, Open Source and Free
Baravalle A., Chambers S., North S. and Holcombe M. (2006).
In Proceedings of WEBIST 2006 - Second International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies - Society, e-Business and
e-Government / e-Learning, pages 39-44
DOI: 10.5220/0001247600390044
Software are often commonly referred as FLOSS
(Free/Libre and Open Source Software) (Ghosh
2002). In this paper we are using the term Open
Source on the grounds that it is more inclusive than
Free Software and is more widely understood in the
target community.
Open Source is a property of the software related
to the licensing policy; practically software is
considered Open Source if it is using any licence
that has been approved by the Open Source Initiative
( Linux, the Mozilla-based
applications and are some examples
of successful Open Source products used in the
Proprietary software is, on the other hand,
software which does not provide all the liberties of
Open Source. For example, the user may have the
freedom to use and redistribute the software, but not
to change it; this is the case in some royalty-free
binaries such as in freeware or in shareware.
Some organisations involved in Open Source
development base their business on selling services
(as Novel, Sun and RedHat do). Some Linux
distributions are a customisation of existing
software, with additional software for facilitating
system configuration. Whereas, some companies,
such as MySQL AB, do business by selling non-
Open Source versions of their Open Source
For public administrations, using Open Source
can be an interesting from many different points of
view, and e-government is one of the more obvious
ones. Firstly, Open Source increases the
inclusiveness of electronic communication. Much
Open Source software is distributed free of charge;
thus a public administration using Open Source does
not force their citizens to purchase software in order
to communicate using it. To communicate with
public administrations that use proprietary software
it can be necessary to have the software itself.
Promotion and support of Open Source has an
impact not just on the public administration itself.
It may affect the local economy and the vitality of
local businesses, as public administration will
require, in many cases, support for the
implementation of Open Source and for technical
Moreover, Open Source naturally provides the
roots for cooperation, which can be a key factor for
transforming services. Public administrations which
acquire their software in the free market and adapt it
to their needs are equally free to pass it on to other
public administrations. Thus Open Source can be
strategic for lowering the cost of acquisition, as
solutions developed by or for other public
administrations can simply be adopted. Reusing and
improving software can have a high impact on both
the quality and variety of new digitally-based
services provided.
Finally, it is important to mention that a current
priority of public administrations in UK is e-
government: it was the target that all public services
should be available online by the end of 2005
(Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2004), with the
opportunity to apply for extra funding to work
towards this goal. If e-government is, and has been,
the main priority, migration to Open Source can be a
key factor for the implementation of this strategy.
Nevertheless, in the UK, Open Source is not
having the same degree of success as elsewhere in
Europe. Organisations requiring new software have
different levels of interest in Open Source. In some
cases, Open Source is not seen as an asset, or is seen
as irrelevant. The main concerns for this type of
organisations are related to functions (the software
must meet their requirements), stability (the software
must work as expected), security (the software must
not harm the behaviour of the system where it is
installed), documentation (reference material on how
to use the software), support (help to solve any
problems that arise when trying to use the software)
and economy (the software must be as cheap as
possible). Still, even considering Open Source only
from the point of view of its suitability to solve the
key needs of the public administration, many mature
Open Source software products could compete with
and overtake the corresponding proprietary
implementations and yet are not widely adopted in
the UK.
The evidence for the causes for the UK anomalous
position comes from a variety of sources,
including:personnel of European public
administrations; European companies working with
public administrations; meetings; conversations;
informal interviews; personal mail messages;
discussion in mailing-lists; press and academic
The subsequent sections will address the main
issues which may have influenced the limited
success of Open Source within the UK public
3.1 Technical Considerations
3.1.1 Lack of Success Cases in the UK
When the COSPA project was searching for
experimentation sites in April 2004, there was
limited information about the use of Open Source on
desktops within UK public administrations, and a
number of articles were not favourable to Open
Source (Lettice 2003 and Computer Weekly 2004).
Although these articles were not based on
experience trials (as there had not been many
experience trials in European public administrations
before the launch of COSPA), they are likely to have
influenced their readers. Press articles are often an
important source of information for managers.
In October 2004, the eagerly awaited report on
the UK Government Open Source Software Trials
from the Office of Government Commerce (OGC)
(OGC 2004) was published. One of the key
conclusions was that “Open Source software is a
viable and credible alternative to proprietary
software for infrastructure implementation, and for
meeting the requirements of the majority of desktop
users”. However, it also stated that “Open Source
desktop products (including desktop platforms such
as Linux, and 'office' personal productivity suites)
are developing but there still has been little
significant widespread implementation, though these
are currently starting to be rolled out in public sector
bodies in other European countries.”
Within the report it was stated that “several of
the case studies had migrated or were in the course
of migrating, their desktops to the StarOffice
desktop personal productivity suite or, less
commonly, the OpenOffice suite.”. The report
acknowledges that StarOffice is not Open Source but
states it has been included because it has been
developed from, and its
development is being carried out using Open Source
methods. The deployment of was
not referred to explicitly in the UK trials and the
references to it in the report are to the Munich case
study (IDABCa 2004). It may be that if StarOffice
were not included in the trial there would have been
insufficient data to study.
Case studies are perceived as important and an
IT manager of a UK council was quoted (Clark
2003) saying “We need other councils that are using
Open Source to show the benefits and [demonstrate]
that it can integrate with existing systems.”
However, just because examples are given of the
planned or successful deployment of Open Source in
other parts of Europe, e.g. France (Mohamed 2003;
Sayer 2005) and Germany (IDABCa 2004; Blau
2005), it does not necessarily imply that UK public
administrations will think it will be applicable to
According to Saran (2004), a survey was
undertaken by the Parliamentary IT group (Eurim)
who questioned government departments on their
use of Open Source. Less than one percent of
Whitehall uses Open Source. Within the same article
the Department of Health is reported as saying it was
not using Open Source on any of its implemented or
planned IT systems.
A more successful case involved the Department
for Education and Skills who funded a study
exploring the contributions that Open Source
software can make to the education sector. The
research was undertaken by Becta (British
Educational Communications and Technology
Agency) and a case study report was published
(Becta 2005). The study investigated the possible
use of Open Source for the operating systems and
office suite within four primary and four secondary
schools. The main consideration for investigating
Open Source options was the potential cost saving,
with seven of the schools reporting savings which
allowed them to buy more hardware and support.
Problems encountered included curriculum software
that was incompatible, interoperability issues, lack
of familiarity and resistance to change.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
recently funded an Open Source Academy project
(Knowledge Asset Management 2005). As part of it
a number of councils have been given grants to
investigate the use of Open Source software on
servers and desktops but no results are available yet.
Open Source is already in use on servers in many
public administrations. What is still lacking is
examples of successful experimentations in the
desktop in the UK. Some authors (Waring and
Maddocks 2005) identify a wider sets of Open
Source experimentations in the desktop – but this is
done considering as Open Source software that is
not commonly considered such (StarOffice).
3.1.2 Perplexity on Support
According to SOCTIM, one of the main reason for
the reluctance in considering Open Source is to be
found in the perceived difficulty of obtaining
support. The UK public administrations investigated
acknowledged that they did not often use support for
desktop software, but nevertheless stressed how
important it was for them to know that support was
available. They perceived that it was difficult to find
these competencies in the market.
This result was confirmed by a questionnaire we
circulated to the current suppliers of software to
public administrations in May 2004 (using SOCTIM
software index of 2003 for the list of suppliers):
none of the suppliers who responded was providing
either Open Source, or consultancy on Open Source.
In the most recent SOCITM survey published in
May 2005 (Soctim/FT 2005) almost 50% of the
respondents saw support issues as being the one of
the main drawbacks in using Open Source.
3.2 Economical Considerations
3.2.1 Availability of Funds
The public administrations that are part of the
COSPA project report that their budget for IT is
increasing year by year. They underlined that the
costs are increasing year by year as well, but the
budget is sufficient in (almost) all of the partners for
their normal activity.
The availability of sufficient budget is a clear
argument for keeping the status quo for the software
applications that fulfil the public administrations
requirements for their activity.
However, the COSPA public administrations in
Italy expressed the fear that their budget would
shrink in the coming years, and they want to be
prepared. Presently, in response to Gershon (2004),
UK councils now must make 2.5% efficiency saving
per year for the next 3 years, and that might lead to
different evaluations.
3.2.2 Software Piracy
Statistics on software piracy published in 2004 by
Business Software Alliance (BSA) and IDC show
that the estimated piracy level in UK is the 6th
lowest in the world (BSA 2004a and BSA 2004b).
The study gave the figures at 29% piracy rate in
the UK, compared to 37% across the European
Union and an average of 70% in Eastern Europe.
The other countries represented in the COSPA, apart
from Denmark (26% of estimated piracy) all have an
higher estimated piracy rate: 49% for Italy, 42% for
Hungary, 41% for Ireland.
A possible consideration is that public
administrations in countries where piracy is more
widespread are likely to be affected by the problem.
It is possible that the decision in favour of an
experimentation with Open Source might be linked,
in some cases, to the need for action on software
piracy. This view is confirmed by the fact the
COSPA project is having problems in Denmark as
well, while Italy and Ireland are the countries where
more success has been achieved. Furthermore, one
of our European partners explicitly stated that one of
their motivations in migrating to Open Source
software was a change in the law making software
piracy a criminal offence coupled with a suspicion
that not all their software was legal.
3.2.3 A Different Structure of Costs
The Open Source model is based, from the
economical point of view, on a shift from
commodity to service. Decomposing the cost of
software into the cost of the product itself and the
cost of transfer (including installation, training and
support), it can be seen that the latter is more
variable than the former across Europe. An Open
Source solution is characterised by a cost of the
product itself that is or tends towards to zero, and by
a higher cost of transfer, compared to proprietary
software (due to factors including the necessary
customisation, installation and to the level of
expertise required).
The implications is that the outcome of a
comparison between an Open Source and a
proprietary solution is strictly linked to the cost of
labour, and because of that, the comparison may
differ in the UK, compared to the southern and
eastern countries of Europe.
Moreover, the public sector in the UK is thought
to be one of Microsoft’s most important customers
outside the US, accounting for an estimated £200
million of sales a year (Bolger 2004). It is
reasonable to assume that, consequently, the UK
negotiating position with respect to Microsoft is
stronger than other countries.
The widely publicised UK study on the cost of
Open Source in the UK, at Newham Council,
suggested that switching to Open Source would be
68% more expensive for the council, and that a
upgrade to new Microsoft technology would save
£3.2 million over five years. However, the fact that
the study was paid by Microsoft itself and that a
“special” price was conceded to the council (Lettice
2004) may limit the value of the study.
3.3 Socio-Cultural and Political
3.3.1 Dealing with Failure
A concept that has occurred repeatedly in our
interviews with different sources is that the positions
of the managers in the UK public administrations are
not as secure as in other parts of Europe. A strong
personal responsibility links the managers with their
decisions, and that makes them easily subjects of
Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). Decisions are
possibly affected by consideration, not only of what
is best for the public administration, but possibly
what is the safer option for the individual decision
The immediate consequence of this is a lower
propensity for innovation. At the same time, public
administration managers feel that choosing a
reputable company is a way of covering themselves
if something goes wrong. The point of view that was
presented is that they would be better able to justify
their decision if something went wrong with a
reputable company or product than if they had
chosen something new or different.
There is a common feeling that “somebody to
sue” is essential, in case something goes wrong.
However, while it is not (usually) possible to sue the
developer of an Open Source, it is possible to have a
service agreement with a provider, including
customisation, support and responsibility clauses so
this belief may be based on a false premise.
3.3.2 Political Considerations
Different political considerations play a role in the
different perceptions of Open Source.
Regarding the political-economical perspective,
liberalism (intended as a political and economical
theory advocating free competition and a self-
regulating market) is a common denominator among
the society in the UK, and a common ideological
background amongst the main political parties.
Political considerations – that cannot be
appreciated with a reference purely to the values of a
free market - are involved in the imperative of
considering freedom before any other aspect. The
position is expressed, among others, by Stallman: “I
will reject [proprietary software] even if it is the best
quality in the world, simply because I value my
freedom too much to give it up for that.” (Biancuzzi
2004). The imperative driving technical decisions in
UK is, instead, efficiency and convenience (Davies
2004), and does not involve evaluations of a political
kind, or at least not to the same degree.
Moreover, we have to consider that important
political forces across (continental) Europe (such as
the PSE and the Greens) support Open Source, while
this is not generally the case for the main UK
political forces. In the COSPA project, there is
commitment from the involved public
administrations both at a technical and at a political
level, thus allowing public administration managers
to feel that there is a common perspective.
Informal political considerations may have as
well facilitated the choice of Open Source in some
countries, where it is linked to the perception that
increased independence from the US is necessary (or
to explicit anti-US feelings). This is not generally
the case in the UK, that has a close relationship and
political connection with the US.
Another important point is that in the Open
Source model there is a shift from acquiring a
product in the global market, to acquiring a service,
very often in the local market. The side effects in the
local market appear to have had a positive
repercussion in the acceptance of Open Source, as
demonstrated by the reports of some partners of the
COSPA project so far (Baravalle et al. 2005). A UK
public administration is likely to buy a product or
service from anywhere, while in other parts of
Europe there is a strong believe that the public
administrations need to relate to the local
community and that local suppliers are often
“informally” preferred.
The UK point of view is often based more on
market metrics than on political choices. For
example, in November 2004 (IDABC 2004b),
Bristol City Council announced that it was to
migrate 5,000 desktops to StarOffice in a bid to save
£1.4 million over a five year period, after they
conducted a successful trial on 600 desktops.
However, again this is not Open Source, and it is
significant that StarOffice was chosen instead of the
It is not easy to foresee a commitment to Open
Source in the desktops by the UK public
administrations based on the same motivations that
have been accepted in other European countries.
Technical and economical motivations need to be
sufficiently strong for UK public administrations to
consider Open Source to replace software already in
use. Alternatively, the Open Source community
needs to convince the UK society that freedom is
more important than free market – but this may
prove to be a more difficult task.
For Open Source to have a realistic chance of
succeeding in UK, the only viable option relies not
only on demonstrating that it is more suitable than
proprietary software from a technical and
economical point of view, but on effective
dissemination of the results among the public
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