Pesaro, Microsoft and OpenOffice: the consequences


A few days ago I summarized the most questionable or uncertain points of the software odissey of the City of Pesaro, saying that I’d also post questions and consequences, both for the City and Open Source advocates, not mentioned yet in this story. For Pesaro, the road forward has little or nothing to do with the initial topic, that is Open Source Software in Public Administration. The advocates, instead, should rethink some of their strategies. Let’s start from Pesaro, but what follows applies to practically every city.

Was any law violated?

Italo Vignoli, of the Document Foundation, pointed out that, according to the official italian Code for Digital Administration the City of Pesaro should have proved the impossibility to use OpenOffice for their office work before spending money on Office 365. But “proving this is impossible, except for a very small part of the computers involved. And in fact, there is no trace of the documentation required by the law as proof of that impossibility”. As of today, I haven’t seen any answer from the City about this.

Where are free as in freedom formats?

Sofware is like pens, and file formats like alphabets. If formats are really free as in freedom, it doesn’t matter so much if the software is closed. As a dumb but effective example, using proprietary file formats is like writing tenders for public works that are only readable with one brand of glasses. Any Major that did that would be kicked off his office in a second, among roaring laughs. Yet, this still happens a lot, in all Public Administrations.

So the question here is: how is the City of Pesaro working? Is it producing and accepting texts, spreadsheets and slideshows ONLY in the OpenDocument format? Or is it still spreading and tolerating the native formats of Microsoft Office? Because in the first case, it doesn’t matter much if they use Office 365 (which doesn’t mean they were right to adopt it).  But in the second case, they would be wrong even if they were using Open SOurce Software.

What happens if Pesaro and Microsoft divorce?

We can talk productivity and TCO till the end of days, but the argument made in this case that_ “the Major doesn’t decide on technical issues”_ doesn’t hold at all. Certain kinds of choices and responsibilities about software are political, not technical. A Public Administration is a responsible part of a theoretically sovereign State, which manages information and services that belong to all citizens. As such, its first priority is to guarantee that, regardless of what tools it uses, its citizens retain full ownership of those information and services.

Those must not become objects rented by somebody who could, in any moment, ignore service requests or increase prices at will, because is a de-facto monopolist. In general, a Public Administration may respect this requirement even with proprietary software, but can never ignore it. Therefore, the questions for the Administration of Pesaro are:

  1. What about the documents, data and metadata that, with Office 365 and (I believe) SharePoint, you are now burying deeper and deeper inside Microsoft-only formats and infrastructures? Could you keep using them without losses, if for any reason you had to change software supplier in the future? Or do you already know that it would that be a much bigger mess than what you experienced with OpenOffice? Because, in the latter case, it’s just like if you hired a public manager, with a contract that entitles her to a severance package much more expensive than any damage she may cause to all citizens.
  2. Ditto, for designs of public infrastructures locked into AutoCAD formats, which are even worst than Microsoft.

Where are the Open Data?

Open Data are something essential for Pesaro, if the city is to move to a “model of active participation”, as the Major himself, Matteo Ricci, said about the migration to Office 365. So, Mr Major, please show us the Open Data about these migrations: budget, number of helpd desk requests, actual costs and so on. If such Open Data had been available in the past, this whole migration mess would have been exposed much earlier.

On the same topic, where are all the Open Data of the City of Pesaro? The term only appears, in the City website, in declarations about public transportation,   or about companies of which the City is a co-owner. The official “Transparent Administration” website of Pesaro, instead,  only has PDF or spreadsheets, and no mentions of an open license.

Not a big deal anymore, however. Surely, thanks to the powers of Office 365, from now on it will be a piece of cake to publish and keep up to date in real time all such data, won’t it?

What will the REAL benefits for local jobs and development?

I already pointed out that Microsoft pays VAT outside Italy in the first post. Now is the moment to ask: what will be the effective impact of Office 365 on local jobs, tax revenues etc? Or it will end up like the Microsoft Center in Puglia, that disappeared in the mist?

Who control how City of Pesaro employees work, and how?

According to declarations from Pesaro City officers, at least one thing is certain: Pesaro took three or four years to realize that it had updated one of its infrastructure (never mind which one!) very badly and without finishing the job, wasting 300K Euro plus part of those necessary to migrate again.

Why did it took so long to notice and, above all: who will pay (or already paid, of course) for it? Because there seems no doubt here that, down in Pesaro, there is at least one person that must give back some performance bonuses or salary increase, and possibly change line of work. Who, and for which part of this odyssey, is to the City to judge, all we ask is that they do it. Oh, and of course we also want to know what measures have been taken to guarantee that other wastes in the future (in all the Pesaro Administration, not just its ICT department!)  will be noticed in less than four years.

Conclusion: let’s follow (all) the money, not software. Now, and one year from now

The Microsoft-commissioned report says that Pesaro does not “expect any loss in productivity by the migration to the new infrastructure”. LOSS? If Office 365 does half of what it promises there must be a NET INCREASE here, no loss accepted. On all public services, of course, not just ICT.

As a matter of fact, Major Matteo Ricci did declare that “thanks to the new productivity platform and tools for collaboration and integrated communication it’s possible to regain efficiency and reduce ICT expenses, in order to allocate more resources to services in the field”.

So the ball is definitely in the court of the Major and his whole Administration now. If this is what Office 365 will bring, we can and must stop talking software now, because you have no choice. Use that infrastructure, starting immediately, (also) to monitor and continuously publish as Open Data office productivity, public expenses, public tenders, performance and quality of public services etc.. because, one year from now (not four!) we’ll all want to know what has improved.

One word for you Open Source fans, now

I only use Open Source (no, “Free as in Freedom”) software, and think that the more it’s used, especially in Public Administration, the better for everybody, including real innovation. But I would be happy if this whole story gave a serious blow to certain ways to promote such software, and digital literacy in general.

Speaking of literacy, Dario Cavedon said that the Pesaro/OpenOffice saga proves that “training is the main factor of success when migrating from one software platform to another. Surely the Pesaro employees were badly trained to use OpenOffice, or not trained at all, to the point of greatly increasing help desk requests”. I partly disagree here. First, because from the reports about that “migration” to OpenOffice it is evident that many problems were due to really incompetent usage of whatever software was there BEFORE. So, it seems more appropriate to say that training is essential to decent use of any software.

Second, and above all, because in 2015 all office suites are no “new technologies” anymore, by twenty years at least. **BASIC **training, with public money, on office suites to people who have been using them for years? Pesaro gave very little OpenOffice training to its employees, and bad training at that. But they should have given **none, **not with public money anyway.

As far as Open Source goes:

  • speaking of licensing costs is counterproductive. It always is, at least with Public Administrations, and this case proves it
  • promoting Free/Open Source software instead of, always and everywhere, free formats, is counterproductive. I’ve been saying this for fourteen years, and this case proves it
  • in 2015, continuing to propose (first) office suites, is counterproductive. On this, Microsoft and its partners are 200% right. If you don’t change people’s heads and ways of working first, no software can do much. Now it’s time to focus on developing free cloud software for Public Administrations, that makes them work in different ways
  • finally, and above all, talking of software instead of what people really need and care about is wrong

If you re-read the first part of this post, you’ll notice arguments and terms valid for every public service, and much easier to sell than traditional GNU/FSF style approaches. If you want to fill of Free/Open Source software all Public Administration, that’s perfect for me. But you will never get there, unless you avoid as much as possible talks of software, licenses, source code and the like. But I have already said this too, here and here, so I’ll stop for today.

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