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An Open Source Moment

I’m having an Open Source moment, again!

This week our re-shuffled government will have to ponder the news from the British Educational Communications and Technology Association (BECTA) that UK primary schools might save as much as half of their IT budget by moving to Open Source software Secondary schools may reportedly save as much as a quarter of their considerable IT spend if they went the same way.

Elsewhere, Open Source is beginning to gain small footholds in local government and eGov monitor reports that software, described as "significant advantage" for councils from the cost/benefit perspective, is now available to help establish up online forums focused specifically on local issues at little to no cost. Two pilot projects, Brighton & Hove Council and the London Borough of Newham are using the Groupserver software under the GPL license, to host online forums where citizens and public leaders can join in debate about important local issues.

But hold on a moment, Open Source aside, is local government really that enthusiastic over the concept of Citizen Online forums? Close to despair at my own local council’s limited grasp of the internet, I’ve stated my own local news and opinions portal and inside three months, it’s close to becoming a full-time job and is making both my local council and the local newspaper a little “twitchy” as visitor traffic grows thanks to some help from local radio and Google.

Where I live, in Kent, respect for local government is not high and one comment on the website remarks: “Anarchy without taxation would be better than the institutional denial of service we currently experience and pay so much for.”

The sad fact of the matter is that local government here and in many other deprived areas of the country has visibly little or no interest in the internet as a serious communications medium. This may be for a number of different reasons. The council workforce isn’t internet literate, the bulk of the population fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. With only two men to clear a hundred square miles of public space of litter, there’s no money for fancy social experiments, online or otherwise and the list goes on.

If my local council was to use this free Open Source solution to improve their limited online presence, then they would need to employ someone who understood it and could monitor the results. That’s money that might be better spent elsewhere and when I set-up a similar forum at he beginning of the Office of the e-Envoy, it cost £40,000 in time, even with free Lotus Notes software and support from IBM. In the end, the OeE gave up trying to deal with the volume of comments, complaints and suggestions and canned the project.

In the end, this isn’t simply an Open Source issue; it’s a money and imagination problem. Based on the comments from my own local portal, local government is still inclined to use the internet as a one-way publishing medium that keeps customers at a distance. Simply changing telephone numbers or correcting information online appears to involve massive administrative effort that moves at glacial speed. While many councils, particularly inside the reach of the M25 may have the resources, the budget and the will to experiment with online forum projects, I suspect many more will simply take a “New customers only” approach to the technology and carry-on doing what they do, leaving local communities wondering whether they exist simply to squeeze larger and larger community and parking charges from the population.

It may well be that this particular Open Source moment will pass most of them by.


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