Why aren’t you passionate about open standards?

A central government consultation on ‘Open Standards’ is underway right now, as instigated by Francis Maude MP and the Cabinet Office. The goal, as stated on the Web site, is to support ‘sharing information across government boundaries and to deliver a common platform and systems that more easily interconnect.’

Obscured by the quite animated debate taking place both online and offline lie a number of quite serious issues that could affect both government departments and citizens alike. So, what’s it all about? The rationale for the consultation is based on UK.gov’s current mantra of ‘better for less’, which means putting less money in the hands of suppliers, whilst improving the delivery of public services.

From a tax payer’s perspective that sounds like a goal worth striving for, so just how can open standards save money? Taking the two words in reverse order, let’s start with the easy one – ‘standards’. The history of computing is a tale of getting things to connect together, pass information or share a common data store. It’s a fair assumption that interoperable systems and services run more efficiently, and therefore cost less for the same result, than their isolated or difficult to integrate equivalents.

Of course, not all prospective standards make the grade. X.400, that super-resilient messaging standard, has shuffled off to the elephant graveyard, as has Open Systems Interconnection. Some get superseded, some (like punched card layouts) now lost in the sands of Internet time. And others become de facto even though they’re not the best – or example, rather than adopting X.400 we slog on with the less reliable SMTP. And it seems to be doing alright.

So, yes, standards are A.Good.Thing. A bigger challenge appears to be around that delightfully vague and multi-faceted word, ‘open’. Ignoring the publicly broadcast debate for a moment, the battle lines seem to be drawn around a single core meaning of the word – that the cost of storing, transmitting or accessing public information in any given format should be zero. Zilch. Nada.

Which sounds reasonable. If you’re wanting to file your tax return, you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Equally, if you are a researcher wanting to access census data, a healthcare worker wanting to access medical guidance, or a commuter checking bus times. The problem isn’t so much the actual information – the mapping co-ordinates, meeting minutes or contact lists – but more the formats in which such information is stored.

Commercial organisations are currently making quite a success out of selling (aka licensing) certain information formats, and/or ensuring that their own tools are the de facto access mechanism. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle – a TV manufacturer for example will have a complex set of arrangements with its suppliers, licensing a video compression standard here, buying in chipsets and other components there. They’ll then build the TV and flog that, and expect to make a reasonable sum on the deal.

But what about public information? Governments are moving service delivery online because of all the supposed benefits – cheaper, less paperwork and so on. Indeed, the recently launched ‘Digital by Default’ initiative is focused on exactly that. But is it reasonable to expect departments or citizens to pay a premium to certain companies, simply to do the things they used to be able to do via paper? Similarly, if a government can adopt (or otherwise come up with) a standard for document storage that is free-to-use, should they be spending tax payers’ money on licensing formats from computer companies?

The answer, of course, is ‘it depends’ – but while every case needs to be considered on its merits, a number of gating factors exist. The first concerns just how many people are impacted, and by how much – for example, filing tax returns affects every adult in the country. The second concerns the benefits which may be achieved by using a certain pot of data, or a certain format, over the costs to the nation of doing so.

Third, we have the question about whether any alternatives exist – there is no point (particularly with technology) sticking with a certain way of doing things simply because that’s the way it’s done at the moment. This does, however, have to be balanced against the costs of making a switch. Finally there’s the question of how much the absence of open standards get in the way of other activities, such as starting a company, delivering new products and services, providing jobs or otherwise influencing the competitive landscape.

That all sounds pretty reasonable, and well worth discussion. However, the only topic that appears to be debated is the last one, and this from the perspective of vested interests. Incumbent vendors are acting like protectionist oligarchs, complaining how they will be unable to innovate if their own approaches (which involve paying them money to license formats) are not adopted. No doubt this argument is partially true, but their real panic comes from the potential of losing a lucrative revenue stream. From a hard-nosed taxpayer’s perspective the response is, clearly: tough. Or to put it more politely – as a nation, let’s pay for things that add genuine value, not those that don’t.

Meanwhile we have ‘open’ lobbyists who seem to think that everything commercial companies say is immediately, and irretrievably corrupted by the forces of capitalism. That may also be philosophically unassailable, but the resulting polarisation has led to much of today’s confusion – particularly when more time appears to be spent on the suitability of those involved, or on the meaning (all parties are guilty of this) of terms such as “free” and “reasonable” when it comes to licensing models, than more important questions that ensure such standardisation activities lead to UK-wide value.

Perhaps the reasons such narrowly focused discussions have come to the fore is because, quite simply, nobody else is doing any talking. Given that the consultation has been extended until June 6th, let’s finish with a call to action: for public sector organisations and their broader suppliers, for strategists and front-line staff, for citizens across the board to add their voices to the debate. Only by understanding the broadest range of views will the Cabinet Office have the information it needs to make a decision. And saying nothing is tantamount to accepting the outcome, whichever party ends up benefiting the most.

[Originally published on publictechnology.net]

Why aren’t you passionate about open standards?

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