The case for open source in the public sector

Hazel Jones, head of health at Made Tech, on why digital partners must fight for open source to deliver efficiency in the public sector.

Posted 3 May 2022 by Christine Horton

The government recently announced plans to improve efficiency and cut costs in the public sector and NHS.

The digital efficiency drive aims to cut £5.5 billion of ‘wasteful spending’. This will be through the creation of a new ‘Efficiency and Value for Money Committee’. The government will also reduce its reliance on consultants and focus more on digitalisation of services.

Digital transformation has been a major focus for the government for the past decade. And this was only accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve seen many services transformed for the better over this time.

It’s positive to see that the government recognises how digitalisation can help create more efficient services. Budgets are tightening for many reasons. So it’s more important than ever for the public sector to produce real value for money. Continuing digital transformation can play a key role in this.

But the public sector and health service cannot create efficiency through digitisation alone. Digital partners have a large and important role to play in creating more efficient services. They’re vital to creating the reusable, sustainable technologies the public sector needs. To do this, they must change and innovate their approach to development.

Increasing efficiency and reducing costs needs partners to create open and reusable platforms. Currently, most government departments and NHS services operate as independent entities. This means they work with different providers and install different solutions to one another. This can inevitably lead to wildly different outcomes for health teams and their end users, the public.

Advocating for open source

There’s a more considered way, and digital partners to the public sector have the power to affect meaningful change. We must work with the government and the NHS to advocate for and implement open source technology. By developing tools and services that are designed for reuse from the ground up, organisations can deploy proven technology with reduced risk and at greatly reduced cost by leveraging and evolving existing open source projects, rather than birthing reams of similar but separate solutions. This will mean public sector bodies can put in place the most efficient and cost-effective technology that is primed for innovation. Free from vendor lock-in and free from proprietary, closed off software.

At the same time, digital partners to the public sector need to do much more than simply provide software. Shipping technology without the teams and skills to use, maintain and build on them will keep organisations locked in to technology providers, wasting time and money.

We need to support our public sector teams on the journey. This means not just training and upskilling, but working closely together over the whole lifecycle of the project to ensure that they are also growing and evolving their digital approaches and mindset. Providers should help to teach client teams not only to use but also deploy and optimise new technology. This way, when partners end their involvement on a project, public sector teams can be confident they have the skills and knowledge to make the most of the new system. And they will not be reliant on external expertise, making them more efficient, sustainable and autonomous.

Building foundations for the future

It’s becoming increasingly redundant to say that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are vital for both the public and private sector. If digital partners want to help the government in this effort, we must do more than “ship and run”. Instead, we must help build the foundations to help them thrive and to benefit all of society.

We can do this by shifting to designing and building reusable open source software and technologies. We should also support public sector staff in how to make the most of new platforms for themselves. By doing this, we can tackle the public sector’s biggest technology and at the same time deliver maximum value for taxpayers.