How could a good intention go so horribly awry? Government ICT agency Becta stands accused of "political sleaze, cronyism and incompetence" by the president of the Open Source Consortium, Mark Taylor, for awarding a two-year "Open Source Schools" contract worth around £270,000 to The AlphaPlus Consultancy, a company not well known for its expertise in open source.

With echoes of long-term grumbles about expensive, top-drawer consultants picking the brains of educationists better placed to run such government contracts, a letter to Becta from Mark Taylor alleges that AlphaPlus has already contacted failed bidders asking for help in the project.

Mark Taylor, who is also chief executive of Sirius, one of a number of open-source companies involved in the other three bids for the contract, wrote: "Today, Friday 13th, Becta's open-source posturing is exposed as a sham, empty spin covering 'business as usual' political sleaze... The losers, as usual, are British schools, British schoolchildren and British taxpayers."

The row is being aired on IT news websites including ZDNet, The Register, The Inquirer and The Free Software Magazine (links below), along with numerous blogs.

Project intended to build community and capability for open source

The other irony - apart from the dramatic Friday the 13th bad luck fulfilment - is the apparently altruistic nature of this enterprise. The purpose of Becta's project is to develop an education open source community to support UK schools wanting to start using open source software, a move that could hold considerable savings for schools and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

Becta's two stated aims were to "support a sustainable and significant community of schools who use and develop open source products by April 2010; provide schools specific content development on open source implementations."

It would be tempting to dismiss the criticisms as the bile of rejected bidders, angry at the success of a Becta "insider". And it's true that AlphaPlus is known to Becta, but that doesn't exactly qualify it as an insider.

AlphaPlus is working with Becta on a "Strategy for the control of vocabularies", described as a project "identifying the potential for an education sector wide strategy for the control of vocabularies, thesauri and ontologies". Hardly a major thrust for ICT in education. On its website it says its expertise lies in "vocational and general qualification development, assessment and public examinations, e-assessment, e-learning and e-portfolios" and managing large projects.

This project had been generally welcomed as a first indication of a coherent open source policy from Becta. It followed the organisation's assiduous courting of Microsoft which disintegrated into an acrimonious love-hate relationship with lawyers now working on the fall-out.

The Open Source Schools project's near-instantaneous descent into debacle is a major embarrassment for ICT policy unless the fire of the arguments subsides. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy will be at a premium if the intended stakeholders - the key players in the open source community - are to be brought back into the fold.

Becta statement suggests wide involvement of open source firms

Becta has responded to the criticism in a statement quoted by ZDNet in which it says it had been "looking for an organisation with an excellent understanding of the use of software in schools and a knowledge of what all stakeholders in a school require".

"They also needed to demonstrate a good knowledge of the open-source community, open-source software products and marketplace... They had to demonstrate that they could manage the challenges of a project of this nature, deliver key milestones on time and show that they had achieved similar work in the past. Finally, they were evaluated on value for money comparing their pricing with the deliverables they proposed.

Becta said all bidders scored well but, "AlphaPlus came out on top overall but, as stated earlier, we anticipate that the nature of the work will mean that many parties in the education and open-source community will be involved in elements of the project delivery."

Call for boycott of project by open source companies

In other circumstances that might be the end of it, but Mike Taylor's intensely angry letter calls on schools that might be aware of Becta to ignore the organisation and work with the other bidders on open source. It also calls on open source companies to boycott the project.

"If you are a school, ignore Becta's project, ignore Becta, and seek advice from the people who are able to give it. Any of the organisations Becta rejected will be your best choice," he writes.

"If you are a member of the Open Source community or industry not yet touched by this scandal, boycott the project and refuse to have anything to do with it. It's not about 'Open Source', it's about jobs for the boys, spin, and discrediting non-proprietary software.

"If you are anyone else, throw your hands up in despair at yet more political sleaze, cronyism and incompetence, and vote for someone other than the current government at the next election, preferably someone with policies on Open Source and Open Government."



The Register

The Inquirer

The Free Software Magazine

The AlphaPlus Consultancy


Open Source Consortium

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