When and how can Free Software really save public money?

A few days ago, during an email conversation about efficient public services and waste of money in Public Administrations, I had to answer a couple of questions. Since those answers may interest many other people, here they are.

(note for newcomers: the “Free Software” discussed here is software like Ubuntu (a Linux distribution) or OpenOffice: software that can be legally copied and installed without license costs, supported by politicians of all parties, even in the European Union)

First question: in my opinion, people saying that Free Software saves money overlooks the fact that those who use it on their job, for example a public employee, may need some training to use all its features. If you consider this, Free Software saves money only in the long run, doesn't it?

Of course, in medium and big organizations, the costs of software licenses are only a small part of the total costs of using and maintaining that same software (even if, only in Italy, the total amount of software licensing costs in local and national PAs is hundreds millions of Euros every year), but let’s look at the whole picture. If you only consider the cost of software licenses, it’s easy: Free Software wins.

If to those costs you also add the maintenance (not training) costs, in some cases Free Software may indeed be more expensive, at least in the short term. This is what normally happens in a very common scenario (at least in some countries), the one where adopting Free Software means hiring independent consultants, because the in-house software administrators only know how to manage programs from Microsoft or some other big commercial vendor.

However, if you really look at the big picture in which that generic “public employee” works, you may realize that he or she is doing something that could be completely automatized using software. In other words, you may realize that from a purely technical point of view the biggest expense, bigger than all the others together, is also the less necessary and most easily removable: all you need is to immediately transfer that employee to do something which is actually useful.

The main point here is that software is a tool, not a goal. Start to optimize regulations, procedures and organization charts and you’ll finally be able to get real big economic savings by adopting Free Software. I have personally heard several managers of Italian Public Administrations declare in public conferences that they use Free Software every time they can because:

  • it is the only software that can be always, surely modified to do all and only what they actually need, therefore it makes them save lots of money by allowing their employees to work much more faster and more productively
  • in the many cases when they find the right Free Software for their needs already available online, they can just install and start using it now! Employees (and taxpayers using their services) don’t have to wait months until some authorization comes, or set up a public tender, build a 100-pages business cases or face some other burocratic nightmare

See what I mean? Those managers didn’t mention at all license costs. When a medium or big organization installs proprietary software (that is “when they get both the money and the permits to do that”) they still risk to be forced to remodel their whole workflow and org chart to fit the only model that that software can cope with. With Free Software is immensely easier to make the opposite happen: first you decide how you should work, then you build or pay somebody to build, just the software that works in that exact way. Free Software, just because everybody can modify it, solves the problems you actually have, not those that software salespeople want you to solve.

Second question: is it realistic to say that today Free Software is so easy to use that there's no need anymore for specific traninig for it?

This is another side of the coin: in addition to the costs of installing and maintaining some program, there may be the costs of training the employees that will use it. There is no single answer to a question like this (even if the one given by a 10 year old boy is somewhat relevant here), however the general concepts I just explained are still valid. If, for example, a public manager finds out that, rather than moving paper from one desk to the next, taxpayers are served much better if all his or her employees start working by connecting to a central database, maybe training expenses for those employees will still be justified, but it will be because they’ll move to a whole different workflow, not to a software programs that has the same buttons, just in different positions.

If we look at office software (which is the context in which those questions were asked) we have to acknowledge that in many public (and private…) offices computers are still used as little more than all-in-one typewriters and calculators, using only 1% of the functions of each program to create very simple documents. In cases like these, considering dedicated training to move from one office suite to another is like taking a class to move from using Bic pens to using Pelican pens: it’s plain ridiculous and sounds real bad, especially in a period when many public schools and offices worldwide don’t even have the money to buy paper.