Recently, I was asked by Policy Unplugged to listen and respond to the UK Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne‘s speech at an RSA event on the impact of the social web. Being the argumentative sort, and having grown up under a notoriously divisive and unprincipled Conservative government, I thought I might have some fun. As it happened, I did enjoy it, but this was because I agreed with a great deal that George Osborne had to say. He is clearly a very smart guy who has taken the time to engage with the world of the social web, and he seems to understand it
In his speech, Osborne set out three pillars of his thinking
- The importance of online social networking
- Democratising access to information
- Open Source Software and thinking
David Wilcox has produced some typically comprehensive coverage of the event, and also recorded for posterity a video and blog post covering my praise for Osborne’s speech and ideas
I very much like what he had to say about the first two issues, and don’t entirely agree with Kablenet that he should have made firmer commitments on these fronts (“In a future Conservative government, I will hang with my homies in MySpace and make my budget announcements on Twitter”). But what he said on the issue of Open Source was, to my tired old ears, a revelation
“There isn’t a level playing field for open source software.
As it stands, too many companies are frozen out of government IT contracts, stifling competition and driving up costs.
Not a single open source company is included in Catalyst, the government’s list of approved IT suppliers.
And small companies often find it much too difficult to access government contracts.
Of course there will be occasions when open source is not the optimal solution, but unless it is being properly considered, the government will continue to lose out.
Another problem has been the lack of open standards in government IT procurement.
All too often, a government IT system is incompatible with other types of software, which stifles competition and hampers innovation.
Looking at the litany of IT projects that have collapsed or spiralled over budget, it’s clear too that this has meant billions of pounds wasted and public service reform being hampered.
The government’s entire approach needs to be overhauled.
Taking into account the experience of companies and public sector bodies, it is estimated that the Government could save at least 5% of its annual IT bill if more open source software was used as part of a more effective procurement strategy.
That adds up to over £600m a year.
The open source savings would come not just from reduced licensing costs, but importantly by freeing government bodies from long-term, monopoly supply situations.”
It is easy to criticise politicians, and easier still to say nice things when in opposition to an imploding ancien regime, but to the extent that we give political speeches credence, this is a very good start indeed. I cannot recall a better speech about the ‘net in UK political history
Incidentally, since this speech, George has moved on to criticise the government for the fact that most of the massive sum invested in the National Health Service since 1997 has been soaked up by bureaucracy and salaries rather than flowing through into better patient care. I think there are some intriguing commonalities between the top-down, target-driven and process-heavy approach of service improvement in the NHS and the way that government thinks it should run major IT projects with their friends in the big consultancies. Something tells me that if he combines the two issues, he might score some points … or votes, or whatever it is these people do 😉