Innovating in a time of budget cuts: Why the city of Bari swapped Microsoft for open source

One Italian city has decided to move its 1,700s PCs from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice.

The Bari city centre. Image: iStock
The last few years of austerity measures have left Italian public sector bodies in desperate need of ways to cut costs. In pursuing this goal many local governments got some much sought-after help from open source software. The most recent to follow this path is the municipality of Bari, a city of 327,000 people in the Puglia region: it's currently replacing Microsoft Office with LibreOffice on its 1,700 PCs in the hope to making its budget leaner without hitting productivity.

The move, according to Bari officials, will ultimately save €75,000 over the next five years - but that's not its only positive effect. "The savings are crucial but they're not the only reason behind the project," Angelo Tomasicchio, Bari's councilor for organization and innovation, told ZDNet. "We also think that moving to open source will benefit our local IT market instead of some software multinationals, while allowing the city to archive all the knowledge it produces in an open format."

The project

The Bari's migration began this summer with the goal of having LibreOffice installed on 75 percent of the municipality's workstations by the end of the year. The deadline is ambitious but the city administration is confident it will be met, as some preparatory work has already been done. The project started in September 2014 when a little over 100 PCs in different city departments switched to LibreOffice as a trial.

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The results of the pilot - which involved one hundred employees - were encouraging, the city of Bari's officials say, as no major issue was reported. This preliminary phase was also important to assess what kind of training the workforce interested in the shift to LibreOffice would need to undergo.

"The feedback we received showed the transition was deemed pretty smooth by the vast majority of workers participating in the experiment," Antonio Cantatore, the city's CIO, said. "This led us to conclude that the training should be focused on the features of the new productivity suite, but also on the reasons behind the switch to open source as a way of fighting the resistance to change that is typical in such projects."

When explaining the migration to the employees, the financial rationale will likely be mentioned. While not the only reason, reducing costs is without doubt the main motive behind Bari's move, and the effects will be felt in the city's budget straight away.

According to Cantatore, the city spends on average €33,000 per year on new Microsoft licenses, a figure that doesn't seem to have changed much throughout the years. Instead, the costs involved in migrating to the open-source productivity suite are projected to fall quickly over time.

"We estimate the migration costs to be €30,000 in year one, € 25,000 in year two, €15,000 in year three and €10,000 in the following years. That means we could save up to €75,000 in the first five years," the CIO said. All the costs, he added, are related to the initial assessment, the training for employees, and some form of support which will always be needed. "The idea is to shift our investments from acquiring licenses to buying services and support, possibly from local providers."

Italy going open source

The Bari's migration will benefit from other Italians' experience, thanks to the help of the Libre Italia, an association devoted to promote LibreOffice's use, which is emerging as a major force behind many open source projects.

"We are following the footsteps of other local governments which underwent such migrations in the past. In particular we are modeling our initiative after the one undertaken by the Umbria region" Tomasicchio said. There, right in the middle of the Boot, with the help of Libre Italia 7,000 workstations are migrating to the open source suite.

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But there are plenty of other examples Bari could draw inspiration from in contemporary Italy. The province of South Tyrol right under the Alps, the city of Turin in the north west, and the city of Udine in the north east have all decided to ditch proprietary software in recent times.

Everywhere the main rationale behind the moves was a financial one. Admittedly, not all the projects were a clear-cut success on this front as at least one administration, the city of Pesaro, opted to return to Microsoft after having trained its 500 employees to use OpenOffice. Following the results of a somewhat controversial study, the city officials decided it would be more convenient to use Office 365, Microsoft's cloud productivity suite.

Pesaro's decision notwithstanding, Bari's city administration believes they made the right choice and hope to be a source of inspiration to other cities in the Italian Mezzogiorno region, which has so far lagged behind other parts of the country in such projects. "We really hope to become an example for other southern public administration that might learn how it is possible to innovate even in these times of budget cuts," Tomasicchio said.

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