Open Source Software Finds its Sweet Spot in the Public Sector

For more than sixteen years, James Passingham, Chief Technical Officer at Foehn, has pioneered the development of communication systems using open source software. Here, James explains where government policy encouraging the use of open source is bearing fruit.

It was some four years ago, with the founding of the Government Digital Service (GDS), that open source software first came into the public sector limelight. Under the direction of Liam Maxwell, Government CTO at that time, the ‘Better for Less’ report that he co-authored set out the policies that gave government IT management the remit to pursue the advantages of two specific technologies – cloud and open source software.

The success of cloud adoption has been clear to see. Throughout Central Government and increasingly at local level cloud solutions are transforming processes.

But what about open source? Mandates for the use of open standards have attracted much attention to the benefits of cost-savings and freedom from vendor lock-in, but evidence of wide scale implementation is less obvious. With the recent departure of Liam Maxwell and other GDS management, it is timely to take a quick review of what open source has achieved over the past four years and where it is heading.

The fact is, open source has established a valuable and important role in public sector IT, but not necessarily where you would expect and not where originally planned.


Better Costs

Originally, GDS focus on open source was very much a reaction to the monopolisation of government contracts by the big IT vendors, notably Microsoft, and the threat this posed to getting the best price for the tax-payers’ money. Driven by an additional desire by government to bring development skills back in-house, away from the out-sourced services that were perceived as expensive,  the adoption of open source was considered a natural move that would support the ‘better for less’ objective.

Above all, the move was also motivated by successes witnessed in the private sector where large enterprises, serving high volume mass markets, could make significant savings on software licence fees geared to user numbers. Businesses willing to invest in DevOps skills could target open source at the more complex applications involved with infrastructure, displacing systems such as Windows and Oracle and making savings in total cost of ownership of 20% or more. Considerably higher savings, as much as 80%, are often claimed for specific implementations such as database technology. 

Most recently, other key drivers of open source in the private sector have included the impact of mobile devices, the steady growth on Linux in the data centre and a rush to the cloud encouraged by wide scale adoption of open source cloud management tools such as OpenStack. In all cases, the reduced costs and return on investment achievable in these projects presents a simple business decision to work with open source.


Better Code

With financial advantages like these, CFOs of businesses across the world are welcoming the advent of open source. Importantly, so are software developers (and compliance officers for that matter), who welcome the efficiency of programming that also abides by the ‘better for less’ mantra.

Open source projects are not tied to standards and can require less coding thanks to existing code made available by both the community and the bigger participating vendors. Quality of code is better too. Independent scrutiny by members of the open source community outside the business means code tends to be of higher quality. Also, it is human nature that a developer, knowing the code is going into the public domain, is likely to submit cleaner code. When the code is placed on a hosted repository such as GitHub, for control and management of source code revisions, the software then becomes available for further improvement by the community.

Development support is excellent and always available so skills can be learnt quickly, adding a dynamic and exciting dimension to the developer’s work. For this reason, open source generates a level of engagement and passion amongst developers that, in itself, drives faster results, better quality and more innovative results.


Open Source for All

Savings, quality, innovation – why would you not take on open source? For the public sector the answer might be – skills, investment, mind-set.

The ‘luxury’ of brining development skills in-house is still a financial challenge for many government bodies, even for the bigger departments, whilst the time and effort required to recruit and train new staff, renegotiate contracts and adopt new skills can meet the usual barriers experienced by any business faced with change.

Much of the challenge arises from the fact that the big financial and operational advantages are most allied to the big government organisations who are within reach of the resources required to match the business enterprise model proven within the private sector, as summarised above. But what of the thousands of local authorities, councils and wider public sector organisations whose stretched budgets, capped headcount and limited resource put the open source carrot out of reach?

The good (and surprising) news is that open source is alive and well amongst the smaller organisations. In that quirky way that the greatest plans often evolve and change priorities, the smaller end of the public sector has discovered and adopted one aspect of open source that has the capability of streamlining and transforming both budgets and operations without the barriers.

The issue is innovation. By partnering with open source specialist developers, the wider public sector can enjoy the agile, unrestricted, integration capabilities of software that breeds innovation and, by doing so, breaks the vicious circle of inadequate funding making efficiencies unaffordable.

Of course, savings on software licence fees and freedom from vendor lock-in, both primary drivers of open source for the central government bodies, are ‘nice-to-haves’. The ’need-to-haves’ for smaller organisations, though, all surround the process and workflow improvements offered by the vibrant ‘innovation incubator’ know an open source. Key advantages include:

  • Continuous innovation - New features are being continuously developed and introduced by communities and software releases appear on a regular and frequent basis. The shared code allows organisations to work with other components and hardware not supplied by a system vendor.
  • Quality Control - Open Source code is continuously developed by a massive global community of developers and is tested by a far larger community than proprietary software ever could be. It is now widely acknowledged that Open Source is at a point where it is highly stable, extremely secure and incredibly feature rich
  • Simple Integration - Open Source software makes integrations simpler. Because the software works with open standards, it can easily integrate into external components. For example, making the connection between telephone systems and CRM systems is greatly simplified.
  • Tangible Value - Open Source can add enormous value to an organisation, providing a product that has lower total cost of ownership, is feature rich, and tightly coupled with business processes and business systems


The Evidence

Who would have thought that the lofty ambitions of government-as-a-service are actually permeating the public sector from the bottom up?

The evidence comes from our clients such as Boston Borough Council. At a technical level the Council’s IT team was keen to use open source but didn’t have the full expertise in-house. Working in partnership with our open source technicians, the Council benefited from innovative cloud phone features that can integrate with business processes whilst still giving the Council the flexibility to choose which telephone platform and applications it uses in the future.

As summed up by Matthew Clarke, Strategic ICT Advisor to Boston Borough Council:

 “Open source is all about maintaining that flexibility into the future. The non-proprietary nature of our new solution gives the Council a choice of hardware and the capacity it requires.”

“Often the challenge for small local government organisations is the supportability of Open Source. With Foehn on board we have the best of both worlds because a managed service gives us the financial benefits of Open Source as well as the assurance that we don’t have to train up an internal cadre of technicians.”

For more information on delivering better for less with Open Source and Cloud Phone Systems, download our guide.


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