UK councils are so far failing to tap into the full money-saving potential and speed of open source web service tools, but moves are underway to address this, delegates heard at yesterday's 'Building perfect council websites' conference in Birmingham.
Although most councils still run a Microsoft-based ICT infrastructure, almost all do also now run at least some open source software, Kevin Jump, director of digital services firm Jumoo, told delegates.
Jump is former web manager at Liverpool City Council, which migrated to open source CMS Umbraco in 2011.
One delegate from an English county council said his authority had used the open source CMS platforms DotNetNuke and WordPress for secondary microsites, and was now looking at the possibility of replacing its main corporate website with an open source system such as Umbraco, Drupal or Liferay.
In taking this decision, risk was the biggest issue, the delegate said. "Conversations steering us off open source relate to uncertainty of the future -where is the product road map if we invest in it? Will they be there in the future?"
However another delegate from a large Scottish council said similar uncertainties exist with proprietary software suppliers. "Every couple of years they change technologies, so you have to rebuild processes and interfaces anyway", he said. And a delegate from an English borough council said its CMS supplier had gone into administration, illustrating the same point. Jump agreed: "When we were looking at Liverpool, there was more uncertainty about main suppliers - people being bought out, products phased out. We found the argument for stability was actually the other way."
Other benefits of using open source solutions include flexibility, delegates heard.
"Websites should be iterative and we would rather change its look and feel from scratch every couple of years, which gives us the flexibility to use open source and jump ship if we need to", said one delegate.
"If you go open source, you can call in another company to come and fix it", agreed Jump. "With smaller councils, skills might be an issue if there is no in-house development capacity, but an open source solution might still be a consideration as it avoids supplier lock-in", he said.
"After all, without in-house technical knowledge, you don't know what's going on either way - the only difference is if we go with a proprietary system and fall out with the supplier for any reason, what are your options?"
Cost was another recurrent theme, with most delegates agreeing open source solutions work out cheaper. However although they may not carry licensing fees they are not free of all implementation costs.
"People often think open source equals free, but you either have to have a supplier to implement a solution or an in-house team", said one private sector delegate. On the other hand, costs do tend to be lower all round, said the delegate from an English borough.
"We invited some developers in who could install an open source system for us, and I was blown away with what could be achieved for a lot less money", he said. "It would also give our web and ICT teams a lot more possibilities of getting involved, which they are excited about."
One typical quote for developing a council website plus intranet, with connections to back office systems, £20k-£25k, compared with about 60k from a proprietary supplier, the delegate said. With a 50k threshold for going out to full tender for contracts, this meant a huge difference in the bureaucracy each route would require. "For the open source route, we would just need to get three written quotes, so we could have a new website up and running by the end of the year."
One important part of using open source software is to try to contribute to development of its core code - putting something back in as a way of recognising the free contributions of others, Jump said. However, while he said he had been active in the Umbraco community during his spare time at Liverpool, the reality is that most councils cannot formally contribute because of restrictions on resources.
"The reality is that most councils don't have the resources to get involved in the core of an open source system", he said. "I ran a team of 30-odd and in council time we never had time to get anywhere near contributing. As a local authority, you can't justify donating to an open source project.
On the other hand, lesser involvement such as reporting bugs or simply joining in discussions - as he had been able to do - was often enough to receive support back, he said. "The fact that we were active in the community got us a lot of sway with the core team, and that meant they may have fixed issues for us sometimes", Jump said. "It is all about being embedded in the community."
It was also important for councils that do decide to use open source solutions to engage with their peers, Jump said. "I would urge those going down open source route to engage with others who have done so."
Some communities already exist to facilitate such exchanges, such as LocalGovMakers and Code for Europe, he said. The Government Digital Service has also published all the source code for its award-winning GOV.UK portal on the code-sharing platform GitHub.
To be honest all this work is not yet co-ordinated very well, it's a bit bitty, but it could be really powerful", Jump said. Ultimately, such code-sharing sites could become the home for ready-made solutions for all digital council services, from reporting missed bins to bus timetables.
"It is about modularising bits of council functionality. It is going to take a little while, but we are on the right path."
Building Perfect Council Websites 14 was the ninth annual event hosted by Socitm. Presentations from the conference will be posted online next week.
Pictured: Jumoo director Kevin Jump.
Building Perfect Council Websites 14: www.headstar-events.com/bpcw14
Code for Europe: http://codeforeurope.net/
GOV.UK code on GutHub: https://github.com/alphagov