A call for action and a roadmap for the new UK government to support the digital commons

  • 10 July 2024
  • Prof Angela Daly, Law & Technology, University of Dundee, UK, Mr Gary Leeming, Director, Liverpool City Region Civic Data Cooperative, UK, Dr Riccardo Nanni, Fondazione Bruno Kessler - Digital Commons Lab, Trento, Italy, & Prof Mathieu O’Neil, Communication, University of Canberra, Australia

The new Labour UK government can strengthen the country’s digital sovereignty and deliver cost-effective and ethical solutions to the public sector by supporting open source software and digital commons.

With a new Labour government assuming power in the United Kingdom on 5 July 2024, the opportunity arises for the UK to take a fresh approach to data and to digital technologies. The new government has already made announcements on this topic, such as the formation of a Digital Centre for Government by the new Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Peter Kyle. As part of the new government’s approach to data and technology in the public sector, we consider that it is high time to think beyond their exclusive provision by the private sector, especially Big Tech companies. Instead, the UK should be inspired by countries such as France, Germany and Italy, and scale up its support of digital commons initiatives to deliver more ethical outcomes and cost savings.

Digital commons are software, “data, information, culture and knowledge which are created and/or maintained online” and which “are shared in ways that avoid their enclosure and allow everyone to access and build upon them” (1) This development model has been adopted by industry: Google’s Android (launched in 2008) is based on free and open source software, and Microsoft bought the GitHub open source development platform for $7.5b in 2018. Other examples of digital commons include Wikipedia, the Firefox browser, and COVID tracing apps such as the UK’s NHS COVID-19 or Germany’s Covid-Warn apps.

Using digital commons comprises multiple benefits, by ensuring that no one organisation or person controls the resource, there is transparency over its functioning and (usually) no payments are required to use it.

Our international research and advocacy organisation, the Digital Commons Policy Council, was set up in 2021 to increase the recognition of the benefits of digital commons such as free and open source software and Wikipedia, and of the volunteer labour which produces these common goods. We do this by producing evidence-based public reports and other resources. We are currently working on a “Best Practices” guide to facilitate cooperation between those involved in producing digital commons, public servants, and policymakers.

Based on this work (which will be published in September/October 2024) and in line with other existing initiatives, we respectfully wish to put the following four points to the new UK government regarding the digital commons.

  1. Digital commons can save governments money - because digital common resources can be used without paying licence fees, unlike Big Tech products. The UK is spending billions of pounds on public sector software every year. Commentators have pointed to public sector tech being “the most difficult terrain” for the new government in terms of its “tech in-tray”. By diverting some of the vast amounts of money the government is currently spending on public sector tech towards implementing and maintaining the digital commons, the UK could still save considerably while supporting ethical alternatives.
  1. Digital commons can promote public transparency and trust - open source COVID-19 apps are a good example, as their code being published enabled users to understand how the apps worked and what data was collected. This increased public confidence at a crucial time, since misinformation about the pandemic had eroded trust in public health measures. As members of the Demos UK think tank wrote in 2010: “Conspiracy theories are a reaction to the lack of transparency and openness in many of our institutions. The more open our institutions, the less likely we are to believe we are living in a conspiring world” (2)
  1. Digital commons can support digital sovereignty by reducing a government’s dependence on Big Tech’s proprietary products - Big Tech products generally originate from companies headquartered outside of the UK, especially in China or the US. In order to buttress UK national security and sovereignty, dependence on proprietary products and services controlled from other countries should be minimised. The digital commons offer a decentralised and democratic alternative.
  1. The long-term sustainability and security of digital commons can and should therefore be buttressed by UK government procurement processes and industrial policy - the UK should support and incentivise digital commons initiatives through government procurement processes by:
    • setting up Open Source Programme Offices as in France,
    • adopting another French initiative - tenders for the commons or “appels à communs”; and
    • setting up a Sovereign Tech Fund as in Germany, which has also been suggested by other commentators.

This would enable the UK to pivot towards increased technological sovereignty in the public sector, cost savings, and support for ethical initiatives.

We are not the only ones to call for such government support. One UK-relevant example is Matrix “an open protocol for decentralised, secure communications”, which underpins critical infrastructure and whose custodian, the Matrix Foundation, is a UK CIC. Earlier this year, Matrix called for more government support for the maintenance of open sources projects like itself on which they depend.

Drawing on experiences elsewhere, we propose the following roadmap to the UK government, with concrete measures that it should put in place to support and implement the digital commons in the public sector and the broader digital commons ecosystem.

A roadmap to supporting digital commons: 10 key measures

For free and open source software

1. The government should conduct an assessment of the UK’s digital sovereignty, measuring for example its dependence on foreign IT companies, similarly to that done in Germany.

2. Once this assessment has been completed, the government should map out how the use of free software and digital commons can help to reduce this dependence: for example, via an industrial policy for the country (#3) and via an open source policy within the administration (#4). This could occur in collaboration with the UK’s devolved administrations and local government authorities.

3. The government should define and implement an IT industrial policy strengthening the country's “free and open source software firms”.

4. The UK government should follow the lead of other governments around the world and set up an Open Source Program Office (OSPO). The purpose of these OSPOs is to define and operationalise a strategy for the use and maintenance of open source software in public administrations. The UK government should set up such an entity and provide it with adequate resources in order to enable the UK public sector to achieve digital sovereignty. (3)

5. Open source software’s adoption by the IT industry has made it the current technical standard. The UK government needs to ensure there is adequate and appropriate study of open source at different levels of the education system as part of an effort to upskill the UK workforce - including its own civil servants- in key competencies for future industries. Future generations of developers need to learn technical skills (e.g., core open source conventions), interpersonal skills (e.g., how to communicate effectively and in an inclusive manner) as well as open source’s ethical values of sharing, transparency and openness.

For digital commons more broadly

6. The UK government should bring together UK-based digital commons stakeholders and ask them what they need.

7. On discerning such needs - such as funding and skills - the UK government should commit to meeting them over time, to ensure long-term maintenance and reduce volunteer burnout.

8. The UK government should establish an enforceable right for public servants to contribute to the digital commons.

9. The UK government should invest in a digital commons incubator which would have a physical presence, similar to startup incubators.

10. The UK government should introduce a preference for firms contributing to the digital commons in the UK’s Public Sector Procurement Policy, which would favour companies which contribute to the digital commons. This would help to reduce “free riding”, when entities benefit from a resource without contributing anything in return.

By implementing these ten key measures, the new UK government will:

  • build a better, cheaper and more ethical approach to digital public infrastructure in the UK;
  • support the digital commons at home and overseas to improve their quality and security; and
  • promote genuine competition to deliver cost-effective solutions to the public sector.


(1) Dulong de Rosnay, Mélanie, and Felix Stalder. 2020. "Digital commons". Internet Policy Review 9 (4). DOI: 10.14763/2020.4.1530.

(2) Bartlett, J. & Miller, C. (2010) The power of unreason: conspiracy theories, extremism and counter-terrorism. Demos, p. 39.

(3) OSPOs met  at the United Nations on 9-10 July 2024.