What impact would a Local GDS have on the market?

I’ve read some really great posts on all angles of the Local GDS idea in recent weeks from a lot of people I respect.

Ben Welby made a number of cogent arguments in favour.

Phil Rumens suggested why he thought it shouldn’t happen.

Eddie Copeland of Policy Exchange has argued strongly for it to happen – and I find much of merit in his riff about open standards being a critical enabler of change.

Sarah Prag added a particularly interesting flavour to the discussion, really focusing on exploring aspects of the problem rather than jumping to the solution

Rob Miller expresses many opinions I share in his post pointing to the potential stifling of smaller local providers if we take a monolithic approach.

And many people track the whole discussion back to a post by Rich Copley – itself inspired by Dominic Campbell’s tweet in December 2013.

(Anyone I’ve missed out – sorry!)

Some of these posts explicitly mention the way that a number of local government system suppliers are making a nice income from selling the same products to 300+ local authorities in England, and ponder on how much money could be saved by renegotiating large volume contracts with a single Local GDS, removing lots of software support and infrastructure duplication at the same time. They also talk about having one CMS and one set of integration and related back end services.

For many of us who work in local government, in IT or more latterly digital teams, it’s easy to pile up stories of the difficulties we’ve had trying to work with certain suppliers, and the tired legacy systems they provide – many of which were written in the 1980s and have never been overhauled. Boston Consulting Group would be pointing out “cash cows” all over the place in the council applications landscape! Whilst I could try for a bit of fairness, there are indeed many instances of products that simply aren’t fit for purpose for the world of digital services and user needs driven service design.

But, and it’s a big but, the market is changing. There are lots of new entrants, many of them SMEs, many working with a wide variety of open source and open standards based products and services. But they aren’t all using the same products – there are multiple CMS, portal, integration, EDRM, and related systems, running on several different infrastructure stacks.

So even if we think that the local government line of business apps market deserves to be shaken up and the companies in it should lose business, revenue and some should probably go out of business (just a thought experiment here people, stay with me…) do we really think the same about all these keen new entrants? When we decide on the one CMS product for the Local GDS to use, and the single integration platform, and the chosen EDRM, are we all clear and happy that every supplier who doesn’t support those products is barred from competing for the work that Local GDS has to offer – and will have to weather the financial consequences.

What about the fact that depending on the products that get chosen, some parts of the country will be winners and some losers – for instance there happen to be lots of PHP coding companies in Bristol, so adopting Drupal as the platform for Local GDS would be great for them. But all the Umbraco developers in a.n.other council’s geographical area would lose out unless they switched platform.

Of course if we ensure that the products support major open standards, and if they are also open source, then lots of companies can provide services to Local GDS, but that doesn’t minimise the initial impact on many companies that are not trying to exploit councils, simply providing an honest service for the needs we present.

How would all this stack up in terms of open competition and trade law? Does anyone know? I certainly don’t, but I suspect one or two businesses would be consulting legal experts and mounting sustained campaigns to pull the rug out from under Local GDS and its supporters. Just look at what happened to Massachusetts back in 2006 when it tried to adopt a fully open standards approach to their enterprise IT architecture, or indeed what happened to GDS and the Cabinet Office in the recent history of open standards adoption in the UK.

So I think there are many commercial difficulties with our ability to implement a Local GDS that had a major infrastructure element to it’s role. That’s not saying it shouldn’t happen – I’m still not decided which side of the fence to jump off myself πŸ™‚

The other angle to this of course is that every council that has invested in this variety of systems and suppliers has a large amount of sunk cost in their current technologies – which of us is ready to simply write that off and walk away? Most councils would want to ensure there was an appropriate return on investment in their assets and therefore would want to look at a phased migration to any new centralised platform.

And another thing – Phil Rumens has argued passionately about the local democratic aspect of councils as a barrier to adopting a Local GDS. It’s not just about ward members representing localities – Chief Execs and Mayors/Leaders have great ambition for their areas, and often want to ensure that economic success and the distinctive local character of an area are sustained by the way we spend our technology budgets. I suspect that no matter how economically rational it is at the whole system level, every council leader that sees their region losing out to wherever the Local GDS is based would resist and argue against it.

BUT – and I think it’s a big but – none of that complexity should take away from one critical point in all of this. As a sector we have to bite the bullet and whole heartedly commit to an open standards based approach – seeing that through in the face of all the challenges and complications that are involved. Insisting that all of our systems can exchange data openly and that standard schemas and protocols are being used, begins to tackle the ability of councils to migrate towards flexible, agile solutions that meet user needs, and opens the door for considering collaboration and co-ordination across the sector.

Standards bodies have a part to play in this, but it’s really important that people in the sector stand up and get deeply involved – so it’s brilliant to see @localgovdigital people like Dan Blundell @danblundell and Ben Cheetham @_BforBen working with folks from GDS to find ways to share assets and form a community around practical implementation of common open standards.

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9 thoughts on “What impact would a Local GDS have on the market?

  1. The question is: are we talking about a free market and free competition or not?
    At present there are just a few monopolist players in the Public Sector market which are doing whatever they want including lobbying against Open Source and Open Standards because they want to keep control of the IT market in the UK. e.g.: http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/public-sector/2012/01/microsoft-hustled-uk-retreat-o.html

    If there was a free market then there would be no issue with company closing down as they didn’t evolve with the market but at present this is not the case. We keep seeing public tenders which are just copy/paste from text written by the usual vendors where if the specific product is not mentioned there features and services requests that can only be satisfied by a specific product (even if those features will never be used) or even a specific reseller.

    We all know that this is what is happening and not only in the IT market so let’s say openly what we think.

    As we are working to promote Open Source and Open Standards we are now discriminated against as many CIO/CTOs in the Public Sector say that they are a β€œ[name of major vendor here] house” so they won’t consider alternatives that can save vast amount of money to the council and local tax payers. What shall we do? Is the government worried about unfair competition against us? Should we start legal action against all the Councils that don’t take in consideration Open Source?

    We don’t have those issues with the Private Sector as they are spending their own money so when they see that a solution can allow them to spend less, become more productive and more competitive then it’s a no brainer for them. Even if they invested heavily on a solution they plan for change. Changes can be easily made also in large Councils just by replacing a service at the time without creating massive and expensive projects.

    Then I keep hearing about the lack of Open Standards as the show stopper for all migration to new solutions. Did you ever hear about ESB (Enterprise Service Bus)? You can get a data feed from a legacy system to feed information to another type of database or a new service. That would allow you to start migrating some services without disruption.

    Do you know you can create automated batch conversion of documents from MS document formats (not a standard) to ODF (recognised international standard) and start using LibreOffice? Councils all over the world are saving millions every years, why you are not?

    So where is the issue? Is it that if the Councils don’t spend all their budgets next year they will get less money? Maybe some CIOs can’t be bothered to change things as they prefer an easy life and more conferences in warm places? Are people in the purchasing department not talking to the IT department when they decide to purchase new licenses or renewing Enterprise Agreements? Are there other type of external pressures?

    So while now the focus is Open Standards (actually it has been an issue for the past 30 years) I believe that there are also other issues that need to be looked at in the Public Sector.

    Fortunately there are some great examples of Councils that move to Open Source and Open Standards which should be taken as an example by other Councils that should stop complaining and start acting.

    This is naturally a generic rant from a private citizen, which knows a bit about IT, and not aimed to anyone in particular.

  2. onturbulence says:

    Thanks for the comment Paolo, it’s good to have some passion expressed and a clear position articulated. I’m not going to try to answer everything you raise – I don’t know in many cases. One thing I will say is that it’s a really complex job dealing with the multiple lines of business (often quite independently managed), political direction changes, and legacy applications and technology landscape that characterises local government. Many good people wear themselves out trying to effect change and they may well share your beliefs, but not be able to deliver the outcome.

    Most people work in local government because they believe in public service and love their locality, few do it for the money or an easy life!

    As for your starting point, absolutely agree that this is about freedom of the market, although let’s be honest there is no such thing as a fully free market is there, global politics and economics are enmeshed. But I agree to the extent that we should be seeking to level playing fields, remove barriers and enable a wider variety of companies to successfully compete for public sector business. All businesses can choose to respond effectively or not, and as you say if some go out of business, well that’s what being in business is about – it’s your job to understand what buyers in the market need and meet that. But we all need to be better, more transparent and more informed buyers don’t we πŸ™‚

  3. I surely don’t envy your position as, you may have understood, I’m very pragmatic and straight to the point so I wouldn’t be very good in dealing with closed minded and “politically” motivated managers.
    Fortunately I’m the boss in my companies so I can choose my challenges and the people I work with.
    I find the UK Public Sector challenge interesting as I know that there are a number of very good people that can act an example for others which are just waiting to see some of their colleagues demonstrating that Linux, Open Source and Open Core solution really work and it’s not a risky and unsupported platform that the media, sponsored by vendors and other interests, keeps saying.
    Naturally, like any change, it’s not easy but you are not paid a minimum wage so you (and your CIO/CTO colleagues) have to show us (citizens) that we get good value from the money we take out from our wallets to pay you.
    I put my name and face on the line every day, not because I don’t have anything else to do but because I know what I’m talking about and I’m willing to learn more every day to make sure that what my companies are promoting will provide a better value for money, remove vendor lock-in and use Open Standards so that you can get interoperability, Open Data and transparency out of the box.
    The nice thing is that you don’t have to believe me, you can download and test those solutions, compare them against other proprietary or Open Source vendors to see if there is real value, if you like them use the Community edition for free or pay the organisations we represent a maintenance fee for support or additional features so that they can employ even more developers to develop the features you want.

    It’s that easy but maybe we should talk so that you could have more information for you to decide if you want to be an informed buyer and supporter of Open Source/Open Core products, an informed implementer of free Community projects or a badly informed subscriber of Enterprise Agreements.

    We met about 4 months ago at the Open Source Conference so maybe it’s about time?

  4. onturbulence says:

    Hmm. Thing is Paolo, I wasn’t talking about me πŸ™‚ I already am a fairly well informed buyer and supporter of open core, community and open standards based products and services. I have many conversations with people like you and continually monitor opportunities to make the choices for greater openness in support of public value and effective use of public money. You’re right that you and I haven’t spoken yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not working with several open source and open standards service providers and suppliers.

    I think what I was trying to say with my previous comment is that I try not to judge people in similar roles to mine without more knowledge of the specific challenges they are facing. But that’s not to imply that you and other citizens shouldn’t expect and push for the best use of public money and hold us to high ideals.

  5. I really doubt you had conversations with people like me as I don’t know any other Italian (yes another bl**dy foreigner πŸ™‚ ) that set up an European distribution network specialised in Open Source/Open Core that can count on partners all over Europe that can bring together a level of shared knowledge that a single company cannot match… but if you do please let’s exchange details. If you don’t you know where to find me πŸ˜‰

  6. onturbulence says:

    Thanks Richard. Will be setting out what we are doing in Bristol and how in my next couple of posts.

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