'Ditch Microsoft Office or take a pay cut: Which would you choose?'

Threatened with a major budget cut that could have seen employees pay slashed, one Italian region decided to ditch its Microsoft Office software to make up the shortfall instead.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor
The capital of South Tyrol, the region that decided to ditch proprietary software rather than cut staff's wages. Image: Shutterstock

The strongest driver for free software adoption in a public administration? Fear of layoffs.

If you don't believe it, ask the autonomous province of South Tyrol, in Northern Italy. The local government has just begun implementing a plan that will have most public sector organisations in the region using LibreOffice by 2016. Really.

And why did they do it? Because the austerity measures passed by the national government meant the region was left facing a €16m cut to its personnel budget. In order to avoid cutting employees (or, more likely, their pay), management and unions had to find a creative solution. Which they did: a mass migration from Microsoft Office to an open source equivalent.

"The savings are mandatory, so it was either us or the proprietary software," said Erwin Pfeifer, not entirely joking. Pfeifer is a member of the autonomous province's IT department and one of the people managing the project.

The total cost of the migration is estimated to be €2.7m. The investment, said the administration, will start paying off from the very beginning. In 2013 the expected savings will amount to €500,000 a figure projected to increase to €1m per year subequently.

"The cut will be mostly in software licenses," said Paolo Dongilli, a colleague of Pfeifer in the province's IT department. But the migration will have another benefit for the administration's balance sheet: "Unlike certain proprietary software licences where you rent a software package for a limited time, free software acquisition and customisation expenses can be capitalised and counted as assets," Dongilli said.

Announced in June, the plan will also make Open Document Format (ODF) the standard format for the exchange of documents between all public sector organisations in South Tyrol. At the end of the three-year process a total of 16,000 workstations will have been migrated to LibreOffice, the open source productivity suite that was forked from OpenOffice in 2010.

"We opted for LibreOffice over OpenOffice because we think this gives us more guarantees. It has a more consistent and constantly growing community of developers and by statute has to be independent from corporations," Pfeifer said.

Plus, the fact that the productivity suite has been adopted in big international migration projects like the city of Munich's, helps. "We are talking about huge implementations which create a vast ecosystem of companies supporting the software. And that makes us feel more secure that the development will continue," he said.

The project, which involves all the offices of the province, the health organisations and most municipalities of the region, doesn't really mean starting from scratch. Between 2003 and 2012 thousands of workstations used by public sector bodies in the area — including a significant chunk ofits schools — installed LibreOffice (or its predecessor) making the open source productivity suite already quite widespread in the South Tyrol public sector.

"We are taking a big step forward but it is by no means the end," Pfefer said. "Not only are we looking for more public organisations that could migrate in the future but we're also looking at [swapping out] other kinds of software, and soon we'll have to think about the cloud."

To smooth out the transition of such a big number of workstations, the administration decided to call on local ICT providers for assistance. Some 70 percent of the €2.7m invested in the project will go to South Tyrol companies, which will be involved in training, assistance and software development.

"We want to create an ecosystem around free software for the public sector, and the private sector, which has been involved from the very beginning, is ready to follow us," Dongilli said. "[Suppliers] just ask for stability: they want to be sure that the decision won't be reversed. And it won't."

A competence centre will be also be set up to become the go-to place for all the organisations involved who need help in using, extending and managing LibreOffice. The centre, which will put together by staff from the various public administrations and local companies, will promote collaboration between the different institutions and will serve as contact point with ICT local companies.

That doesn't make the initiative less complex, though. Around 16,000 employees will be involved, and many of them won't be eager to change the software they have been used to for so many years. Based on the experience of other Italian migrations, including that undertaken by the Umbria region in the centre of Italy, in the Autonomous Province of South Tyrol, communication will be key.

"We talked with people involved in other migration plans and they told us the biggest issues are not technical but organisational," Dongilli said. "So we will try to communicate the rationale of the plan at every level from upper management down. We will try to reach out even administrations not involved in the project so that they might take the same path in the future."

What will be hard to fight are habits, built up over a long time. "There are some school teachers who have been building their examples and lessons on Microsoft Excel for years, have been building macros. Now it can be annoying for them to switch. We've got to do a good work of listening and communicating in cases like these," he said.

In the end, though, the most powerful argument will always be economic. "Remember," Pfeifer said, "it's either your proprietary productivity suite or your salary. Which one would you choose?"

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