Missing the Open Source point and spawning “Rats-to-Splat”

Being a local government web manager with severely limited and diminishing resources I’m always looking for ways to save money and generally do things better. A recent report in the Grauniad about the UK government switching to open source software was obviously a real eye catcher.

It’s beginning to happen at work (a shire county) with FileZilla, Firefox and The GIMP appearing on our desktops, but we are wedded to MS Office and there have been no signs of it being replaced by open source alternatives. A move by the UK central government to Open/Libre Office would certainly get the attention of local government. Interesting.

I’ve used open source extensively on my personal computers for quite some time and even contribute a bit as a beta tester and documentation writer to a few projects in the spirit of contributing something back. Despite the leeching aspect of the cost cutting reasoning behind switching to open source, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to read this piece and immediately went in search of greater detail.

The Grauniad piece has many quotes but no source links (and roughly 750 comments of the “yay, stuff it to M$” and “open source is unreliable crap” variety). Not helpful if you want to know how the switch is to be achieved. Worryingly though there are no quotes supporting the headline about switching to open source software; the more accurate quote in the subhead concerns “plans to standardise on open formats” which is entirely different.

I’ve traced the source of all this to a speech by Francis Maude to Sprint14 at the end of January. Sure enough there is no mention of booting out MS for Open/Libre Office, rather a well-reasoned section about “Open standards for document formats” and even a specific statement that “It’s not about banning any one product”. All sensible stuff and really about making sure our documents can be read by anything, not locked in to one company. If we then choose to use MS Office because that’s the best value, fine.

The Grauniad should force whichever sub-ed came up with the “switching from MS Office” slanted headline to write his resignation in [open source] LATEX on [proprietary] Windows Notepad.

But what else did Maude say? Splat-the-Rat!

I read Maude’s entire speech before posting these comments and something else he covered in the “Exemplars” section was the drive to cut down on the plethora of government web sites. In my job I can sympathise with his “splat-the-rat” comment about sites popping up faster than you can decommission them. I saw an email yesterday which mentioned two more we’ve spawned; I’ve also had four conversations in the past two months about new sites and seen one launched in world record time promoting a local initiative. Infuriating if you are trying to fell trees so your users can see the wood.

With all the cuts in budgets you would expect the default position on new web sites, which are a continuing expenditure and demand staff time to maintain, would be to keep them to a minimum. Unless it fulfils one of three criteria it should never get off the ground.

  1. it allows 24/7 transactions for the consumer which are more convenient for them and cheaper for us
  2. it provides some vital information not easily discovered via Google*
  3. it pays for itself by supplying services users are prepared to pay for

So how did one of the sites I mentioned above get commissioned? Proudly displayed in the footer among the logos: “Funded by The Department for […]”. And where is the Df[…] website? The rat has been splatted and is to be found at www.gov.uk.

It happens too frequently. Some central government initiative sprays funding around and local government uses it to create what are effectively vanity publishing web sites. Scrutinise this Mr Osborne if you want to make some “efficiency savings”.

The phenomenon has to stop. Initiatives like sustainable transport, public health, recycling/waste reduction and consumer protection have the majority of their content in common, with some aspects which are local. For example, advice on measles is the same whether you are in Norwich or Northumberland; all that is local are the locations of pharmacies or medical centres. Why should every local health authority produce web pages giving the same advice? Can’t we all get our respective acts together to co-ordinate single resources on nationwide sites which include location aware components to display anything that might be specific to a locale.

This is not a new concept. I’ve re-blogged Richard Copley’s recent post on this subject although he restricts himself to just a local www.gov.uk.

So over to Francis Maude, Eric Pickles and all those local authority politicians and officers whose vanity gets in the way of co-operating because they can’t agree how to share funding and refuse to sacrifice their identity and use national sites.

* Other search engines are available


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