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February 23, 2017

Unlocking the government transformation strategy with open source

Only by removing vendor lock-in and opening up development can the government hope to achieve its target.

By James Nunns

Many government agencies do not have the best reputation for slick customer service. It is telling that the word “bureaucracy” is synonymous with processes that are overly complicated and locked up by rules that appear to make life harder.

Things are changing though. If you have ordered a new UK driving licence or passport recently, you likely have been struck by the ease and speed with which these tasks can be accomplished online. These are just two of the many government services that have benefitted from digitalization.

The highly anticipated, recently published UK Government Transformation Strategy sets out to “transform the relationship between citizens and the state” delivering Adrian Keward, chief technologist for UK Public Sector at Red Hatdigitally-enabled change for citizen-facing services. This paper builds on the 2012 Government Digital Strategy, which aimed to build “online services so good people prefer to use them”. The 2012 strategy and the services it spawned must have been “good”, because people are using digital services in their droves. In fact, the government estimates that the strategy helped save £3.56 billion for taxpayers for the three financial years from April 2012 to March 2015.

Of course, the Government Transformation Strategy is about so much more than cutting costs. It is an attempt to create an environment with a focus on cross-collaboration between departments. Consider for a moment all of the data about you held by government agencies. The DVLA and passport office are tips of the digital iceberg. There is an absolute mountain of medical information on record, though the data the NHS keeps on file are foothills compared with the range of data HMRC stores.

Within the UK government, there are 25 ministerial departments and 21 non-ministerial departments being served by 376 agencies and other public bodies, 78 “high profile” groups and 10 public corporations. They don’t all have your data, but potential scope for cross-collaboration is immense. As, at present, is the potential for the creation of “dirty” data caused by duplicate but subtly different records, or incomplete or outdated data.

All of these departments, groups, public bodies and corporations store data in different places on different technologies. There is a requirement to unlock all of this data and move away from legacy contracts and towards common technology in line with the government’s Open Standards Principles. The government and its agencies are moving en masse towards cloud solutions built using open source.

The benefits for government of moving into the cloud are precisely the same as those realised by private organisations: reduced costs, increased agility, better security and a smaller carbon footprint. And open source offers an ideal cloud environment. The upstream-first collaborative development model encourages innovation that simply cannot exist in a proprietary environment. Add to this arguments for increased agility, scalability and cost effectiveness, and you start to see why the government is so strong on open source.

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Organisations such as UKCloud already serve the Cabinet Office, DVLA, Home Office, HMRC and Ministry of Defence using Red Hat OpenStack Platform and Red Hat Ceph Storage. Using the platform, UKCloud built a production environment in six months enabling it to meet the deadlines of G-Cloud, the Government’s initiative to ease the procurement process for public sector bodies using technology services based on cloud computing.

Furthermore, UKCloud continues to contribute innovation back into the open source community and encourages the interdepartmental sharing of best practice within its public sector and partner communities; precisely the type of cross-collaborative approach set out in the Government Transformation Strategy.

Ultimately, it is the end user – the citizen in the street – who can benefit from this open digital transformation. And not just now – but in the future. Open source enables much greater freedom in terms of development than proprietary software. Not only can we expect services to arrive in the marketplace faster, we can also expect them to be more secure. Furthermore, open source helps to future proof them. As government services evolve and technologies move forward, open source can enable rapid development and adoption.

Imagine a future where you can search your own data. Want to recall your tax details, or health records, or find your school examination documents quickly? No more searching in drawers for physical documents that could be out of date or non-existent, no more calling up government departments or sending off forms and waiting for weeks (and paying for the privilege), more digital services will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to search online. And the cherry on top is that all of this development and improvement can also save the government money.

If the success of the 2012 Digital Strategy is the benchmark, then the UK government has set the bar high for the Transformation Strategy. By 2020 it aims to be in a position to “create, operate, iterate and embed good use of shared platforms and reusable business capabilities to speed up transformation – including shared patterns, components and establishing open standards”.

The government claims that by 2021 most of its current major transformation projects are scheduled to be completed. It’s an ambitious project, with an equally ambitious timeline. But that is precisely the point of using open solutions to drive digital transformation. Only by removing vendor lock-in and opening up development can the government hope to achieve its target.

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