Open Government

Alex Gibney’s rivetting documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has many anguishing moments.

Aside from phone conversations between energy ‘traders’ who laugh about blacking-out California’s grandmothers so that Enron could make another million dollars, it reveals how complicit were pillars of the financial community – bankers, auditors, analysts – in that fraud beyond the wildest imagination.

The vapour funds that empowered Enron were derived in part from ‘mark-to-market’ accounting developed into premature revenue booking: put simply, the moment that Enron deemed that it would make money in the future, it booked that income now rather than when it really occurred.

This perfect solution to the problems of cash flow might have spread to others too.

In 2006 iSoft, one of the two prime contractors for the £11 billion former NHS healthcare computing system (scrapped in 2011), admitted that it might have needed to revise its accounts for previous years because of irregularities that may have led them to “recognise revenues earlier than they should have been”. Eventually in 2011 it was bought by CSC, as detailed on Wikipedia, no one apparently ever being held to account for what had happened, nor for the vast sum of public money which had been wasted on the Lorenzo Project.

But potential scandal over UK government computing extended beyond the NHS’s cosy bed-sharing with Microsoft (fined €497 million by the EU in 2004, a further €280 million in 2006, and €860 million in 2008), General Electric (fined $69 million in 1992 for defrauding the US Government), and iSoft. As in almost every other government procurement, swathes of our taxes went to pay for closed, proprietary systems which ensured that even more of our taxes were handed over in the future for maintenance, updates, and more.

Whilst the rest of us have learned that open standards and open source ensure that we can choose from suppliers in open competition and get better value, these largest projects still seemed blind to those benefits.

Apple may have come to embrace open standards and open source by force of circumstance, when OS X became its only viable operating system option. Prior to that, in Mac OS 9 and the failed projects to succeed it, such as Copland and Gershwin, Apple had been very conventional in guarding its source-code as jealously as anyone else, and technical documentation of its file formats, such as that of MacDraw, had to be licensed under strict non-disclosure agreement. Admittedly there are still parts of OS X that remain under wraps, and Apple continues to fight (not always successfully) to control pre-release products and plans for new products.

But wherever you turn in OS X and Apple’s own applications such as iLife and iWorks, you can see this more liberal approach in the use, if not pioneering, of open standards and open source.

From preference files written in XML to the added features of, we are encouraged to work with products, to enhance and extend them. Freeware and cheap shareware for the Mac has likewise blossomed. Stalwarts such as GraphicConverter have been joined by enormously capable suites such as Open Office and its siblings, with its bedrock of Open Document.

Whilst Adobe’s PDF remains proprietary to a degree, OS X users can enjoy all its benefits without having a single Adobe application installed. In the UK and Europe we are also fortunate enough to have a pool of talented developers and software engineers who contribute extensively to open source, apply and extend it to tackle all types of tasks.

Despite the fine words of the erstwhile Office of Government Commerce and now the Cabinet Office here, and its Digital Marketplace, almost every government project does different.

Reports advocating increased use of open source have mysteriously disappeared, whilst the procurement juggernaut continued to favour the same small clubs of preferred suppliers, who in turn seem go to great pains to lock the purchaser into their proprietary grasp. It is time for government to lead by example, lest it join the former pillars of the community who have been shown in their real light by Enron’s faecal fan.

A truly open government champions open standards and open source, and nurtures European software development.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 22 issue 23, 2006. Since I originally wrote it, there has been a substantial growth in pages devoted to open source products. Needless to say most government departments remain locked into the old proprietary products, many stuck with paying Microsoft huge fees to maintain their mass licences for Windows XP and server products.