Freesteel Blog » No Justice for Open Source

No Justice for Open Source

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008 at 3:31 pm Written by:

In the current issue of Private Eye No. 1217 (not available on-line to take advantage of time limitations for libel proceedings when information is printed on impermanent paper which isn’t vellum) says:

Another multi-million pound government IT cock-up is quietly playing itself out — this time in the courts service.

Back in April, the lord chief justice, Lord Phillips, released his first review of how the courts are run. Buried inside was a criticism of HM Courts Service (HMCS) and its inability to provide an electronic document-submission system for the new Commercial Court by 2010, when it becomes the Business Court.

(The current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, is not to be confused with the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who moved on to more challenging appointments such as whitewashing our greatest weapons company by uttering the words “BAE Systems” and “ethics” in the same sentence.)

Now, it could be seen as a disappointment if your new fancy shmancy hi-tech modern world-class Business Court had to invent and run an entire paper shuffling system for the first two years of its life as it passes rulings on the finer aspects of software patents, but that’s what’s going to happen. Anyway, why would the very businesses who make so much money out of the government want an effective court system which could be used against them, eh?

Given my knowledge of the FOI archive, I wondered how hard and expensive could it be to build a document management system? What’s it going to look like when it is eventually rolled out (following the transfer of so much public money to the usual corporations)? Will it contain any great software modules that can be reused by the FOI archive? Are there going to be a compatible open standards with which we will be able to hook in with our outside interfaces?

I located this article in the Law Gazette which gives details of an FOI request about the Commercial Court (CCIT) project and the Electronic Filing and Document Management (EFDM) project.

CCIT has costed £1.47million, with nothing to show for it. The EFDM, however provides the following breakdown:

from to for consultants internal
2005-08 2005-12 Feasibility Study £136,300 £52,308
2006-01 2006-06 Programme Initiation £470,948 £73,601
2006-07 2007-06 Programme Definition £860,453 £377,483
2007-07 2008-03 EFDM £815,813 £454,022

The feasability study, commissioned in April 2005 and finished in December 2005, was produced by PA Consultants who “draw on the knowledge and experience of 3,000 people, whose skills extend from the initial generation of ideas, insights, solutions and new technology, all the way through to detailed implementation.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t draw on the knowledge of their consultants Nuala Moran [update: who is an FT reporter, not a PA consultant] or Peter Houppermans [update: see his comments below] and his Open Source knowledge group, because you will find not the slightest consideration of Free Open Source Software for the job. This is the UK Government, after all. You don’t even need to rule it out.

The feasibility study is worth combing over in detail because lays out the full horror of their plans within the DISC framework on page 25, which includes a full year of programme initiation, definition and full business case wherein the DISC supplier is put in place before talks begin, and loads of money gets made without any risk of a job getting done — which is always the best tactic for a contractors looking for long-term employment.

Now, you can see the point of treading carefully in the cases that you don’t want to add just another computer system into the mass of computer systems already in place, but this feasibility “study” doesn’t actually propose any ideas. All it says is it’s feasible to take more than a year to come up with some ideas.

From page 22:

* There is a commercial market and the commercial approach would fit with HMCS (HM Court Service) procurement rules
* Viable commercial models exist and have been shown to be robust and workable.
…but there are issues to address going forward:
* No particular procurement route is recommended at this stage, although the study had not seen a successful multiple vendor approach
* The emerging delivery options would need to be tested on the market before making a final decision
* The actions HMCS would need to consider the likely impact of its requirements upon commercial viability
* necessary to mitigate the risk of a monopoly supplier.

So, anyway, for this brilliant piece of work (Expert development of the EFDM business case), PA Consultants received £373,700 according to a Parliamentary Written Answer.

To clarify where we are at, the consultants have been paid over £2million for two years of seemingly unproductive work. According to the Law Gazette FOI,

Logica have just issued a prospectus and pre qualification questionnaire (enclosed) to the market which sets out our current assumptions. These assumptions include a high level timetable showing the implementation approach as well as the procurement timetable.

Since the Law Gazette chose not to use the FOI document management system of, we’re going to have to ask for them again. However,

Documentation over and above the EFDM Business Prospectus and Pre Qualification Questionnaire that refers to potential further work within the CCIT project and the wider EFDM programme contains commercially sensitive information regarding business partners and sub contractors.

Disclosure of the information in a manner which fails to protect the interests and relationships arising in a commercial context could have the effect of discouraging the companies from dealing with the Department because of fears that disclosure of the information could damage them commercially particularly as the tendering process is still ongoing.

This could in turn deter companies from supplying commercially sensitive information, and ultimately undermine the ability of the Department to carry out a successful procurement exercise, adversely affecting the IT projects and any future projects. Whilst the tender exercise is still being carried out, the public interest is best satisfied by maintaining confidentiality in order to ensure the integrity of the process. The information is therefore exempt under Section 43 of the Act.

Oh, yeah, another important thing from that feasibility study:

The large legal firms interviewed would have no difficulty linking into or using EFDM.

Presumably because they’ll all be buying into the same closed software, and will happily be able to bill their clients for the full inflated costs whilst at the same time not providing them or the public with free open access to the official documentation, thus maintaining complete control for the guild.

So that’s where it’s at. An FOI request has been made, including a request for:

Any reports, documents or explanations of what was received from consultants and contractors who billed up to £2,147,214 between the publication of the January 2006 Feasibility Study and the initiation of this new tendering process. This would include any samples of partly complete ‘programme definitions’ that future contractors could use for technical referral.

The wording of my request is crucial, because if they’re going to cite commercial confidentiality, it’ll have to be within the bounds of the law. Public embarrassment resulting from releasing the answer and therefore detering such well-qualified consultants from applying for yet more work is not grounds for an exemption.

Commercially sensitive means there has to be commercial damage from commercial competitors obtaining this commercial information. Clearly, if one batch of consultants gets sacked and a different outfit of consultants are called in to pick up the pieces, they are in no position to argue that it’s commercially sensitive information which they have a right to withhold.

For now, the first step is to force these consultants who have been hired into the hollow shell that is our government policymaking framework to answer the case for open source development, rather than simply getting away with pretending that it does not even exist.

It’s easy. They have to start with this handy catalogue of open source CMSs and explain why none of them could be made good enough by the sinking of £2million into it.

After all if Stephen Fry can celebrate the 25th birthday of GNU, then there is hope that this country might eventually get it.


  • 1. Chris O replies at 4th September 2008, 2:44 pm :

    You know what they say about a fool and his money…

    I wonder if you can FOI who the project manager on the HMCS side was? Somebody is obviously not up to the job.

  • 2. Julian replies at 10th September 2008, 5:23 pm :

    That maxim doesn’t apply because it’s not the fool’s money. It’s from us. The fool is perfectly happy to hire in a consultant to explain how to spend the money they got from us. But they stop being lovable fools when they get the notion that we don’t have a right to know how the money was spent.

  • 3. Peter Houppermans replies at 10th March 2009, 3:17 pm :

    For the record, I left PA Consulting Group quite a while back (I think it was early 2006 or so). I did neither participate in nor contributed to any of studies mentioned above, nor was I asked. I would thus appreciate not to be associated with them, not even by absence.

    Also note that the referenced article identifies Nuala Moran as author, which suggests she worked at that time for the FT – not for PA Consulting.

    Kind regards, Peter Houppermans.

  • 4. Julian replies at 10th March 2009, 4:38 pm :

    Thanks for your interest. I have inlined the corrections.

    PA Consulting is almost totally unaccountable with regards to who works under its banner. They didn’t even list the authors. It is therefore necessary to piece together what is going on from the scarce clues available to get beyond the brand image.

    The report I discussed here (with its astounding lack of any consideration of open source solutions) was written in 2005, and therefore overlapped with your term with PA Consulting. PA wrote on the inside front cover of the report:

    PA Consulting Group is a leading management, systems and technology consulting firm. Operating worldwide in more than 35 countries, PA draws on the knowledge and experience of 3,000 people, whose skills extend from the initial generation of ideas, insights, solutions and new technology, all the way through to detailed implementation.

    In the letter you wrote to Computer Weekly in 2004, you were described as:

    Peter Houppermans is a principal consultant at PA Consulting Group. His current focus is security, from policy and compliance down to live penetration testing. He also runs PA’s Open Source knowledge group and is considered the companies’ leading expert. His experience covers project and program management, product development, implementation and operation across a wide cultural diversity.

    Putting these clues together, it would appear that PA Consulting’s “leading expert” on Open Source was actually a specialist in electronic security.

    I am not able to determin to what extent the “Open Source knowledge group” actually existed in a capacity able to contribute to studies such as these. Perhaps you can point me to some more details.

  • 5. Peter Houppermans replies at 24th June 2009, 6:57 pm :

    It appears you may have overlooked that being a security specialist and an Open Source specialist is not mutually exclusive, and I am still both – the website you link to is based on Joomla, a well known Open Source CMS.

    I decided to focus on privacy and security and now work more in areas such as Swiss private banking (you may have noticed I moved country as well).

    However, I would appreciate it if you removed my name from this article. I did not contribute to it so I do not appreciate being associated with it in whatever fashion.

    Regarding your last paragraph, have you asked PA Consulting?

  • 6. Freesteel&hellip replies at 3rd February 2010, 6:09 pm :

    […] featured in this blog last year as part of the over-priced and failing Electonic Document Management System for HM Court […]

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