Open Standards Consultation Response

Cabinet Office Open Standards Consultation: Our Response

Much of our research and analysis is contained in our recently published report on the importance of royalty free standards in public sector ICT.

Overall we find the consultation to be poorly framed and fails to identify:

  • The effects of the existing policy (the problem identified)
  • The absence of a single formal document delineating the scope of policy relating to the specification and implementation of ICT in the public sector cannot be taken to infer that there is not an existing policy as represented by the sum total of procedure, custom and practice (commission or omission).
  • The intentions of a new policy (the solution proposed)
  • Government should seek to identify the interacting nature of its policy choices and account for their effects.

We are unaware of any economic assessment undertaken in preparation for this consultation and government cannot easily second-guess these values. Such absence might explain the lack of any sense of urgency, neither any proposals for action nor for implementation.

A need to “level the playing field” implies the identification of a market failure and a defective process of competition. However, if perfect competition does not exist, we cannot know the outcome that would have arisen had it existed.

Accordingly a government cannot easily correct market failure or level the playing field. However it can remove or minimise barriers that might lead to or be caused by a market failure.

Relevant policy we have identified includes the Government’s own Economics Paper No 15 Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth that draws attention to the importance of the network effect for ICT.

The network effect is important when taken with the externalities that arise with “digital by default” (or, worse, digital by compulsion). We have written extensively on these externalities: here, here and here.

The lawsuit initiated in Slovakia against the public administration regarding its software choices for on-line public services is a bellwether.

With that context this consultation is inadequate for the following reasons:

  • The intention and scope of the policy should be clearly defined.
  • The requirement to adhere to the policy should be unambiguous.
  • The importance of the network effect for software in delivering wider economic economic benefits should be properly considered before accepting any exceptions to policy. Individual “business requirements” should not be allowed to propagate or sustain individual circumstances at the expense of the wider objectives.
  • The question of how existing software should be moved towards compliance should be tackled explicitly.
  • Future, unforeseeable circumstances (e.g. with patents or other encumbrances) should be regulated in terms which accord with best legal practice.

Our full response may be downloaded from here (21 pages, pdf, approx 300kByte).