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Free software gains ground in the Italian public administration

Italy's Ministry of Defence is pioneering the use of open-source office productivity tools with the migration of 150,000 PCs to LibreOffice

The Italian Ministry of Defence is replacing Microsoft Office with LibreOffice productivity tools on 150,000 PCs in what is Europe’s second largest LibreOffice implementation.

The switch, announced by the LibreItalia Association in September 2015 and expected to be completed at the end of 2016, will also see the organisation adopt the Open Document Format (ODF) standard. 

Procurement rules in the Italian public sector make the pioneering move one that others can copy. Italy’s Agency for the Digitalisation of the Public Sector (AGID), for example, hopes that other organisations will follow the same open strategy.

As well as freeing the ministry from dependence on proprietary software such as Microsoft Office, the switch will allow it to store information in Open Document Format.

The organisation will train its staff to use the LibreOffice suite to help it overcome one of the steepest barriers to the adoption of open-source software, which is getting Microsoft users to accept and adopt change.

Overcoming barriers to open-source software adoption

“As usual, the biggest challenge will be resistance to change, because people are used to working with Microsoft Office, and in the process of using it for years they become almost addicted to it,” said Italo Vignoli, co-founder of The Document Foundation (TDF), the non-profit organisation behind the LibreOffice suite.

“Obstacles are psychological, not technical. Interoperability problems can be solved, while the resistance to change is difficult to overcome.”

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As a result, communication is important, both internally and externally, said Vignoli. The Document Foundation has published a migration protocol, which provides guidance to organisations willing to switch from proprietary software to free software.

“Although based on LibreOffice, the migration protocol can be adopted for any migration project, independently from the product,” he said.

LibreOffice a favoured alternative to Microsoft Office

The Ministry of Defence is the first Italian central government organisation to switch to an open-source office productivity suite, but many regions, provinces and city administrations in Italy already use LibreOffice. These include Regione Emilia Romagna with 3,500 PCs, Province of Perugia with 1,200 PCs, Cremona with 500 PCs, Macerata with 500 PCs, Trento with 4,000 PCs, Bolzano with 6,000 PCs and Bologna with 3,000 PCs.

“After five years, LibreOffice is recognised as a major Microsoft Office contender, based on a sheer feature-by-feature comparison and on the number of successful migrations,” said Vignoli.

The Future of open source survey 2015 included LibreOffice in its list of the seven most valuable open-source projects, based on the answers provided by more than 1,300 professionals worldwide.

With its adoption of LibreOffice, the Italian Ministry of Defence complies with Law 83 of 22 June 2012, which provides a framework for the adoption of open-source software by Italian public administrations to replace proprietary software.

Italian government chooses free software over licensed software

In 2014, the Italian government issued final rules of its procurement law that requires all public administrations in the country to first consider re-used or free software before committing to proprietary software licences. These new rules include an enforcement mechanism, which can, at least in theory, annul decisions that do not follow these procedures.

“The ongoing debate regarding the use of free and open-source software in the Italian Public Administration seems to have reached a satisfactory conclusion,” said Guglielmo Troiano, an Italian lawyer and open-source software advocate. “The Italian government has made free software the default choice for public administrations.”

The Italian government has made free software the default choice for public administrations
Guglielmo Troiano, lawyer and open-source software advocate

A document published by the Italian Digital Agency – entitled Guidelines on comparative evaluation [of software] sets out a detailed method which public bodies must follow to decide which software to use. They are required to look for suitable free software, or choose software developed by the public sector. Only if no suitable software of these types is available may they consider paying for software.

“Italian public administrations are obliged to give priority to free and open-source software,” said Troiano.

This preference, however, cannot be given without a comparative assessment. One of the tasks of the Agency for Digital Italy is to establish procedures and criteria that will help to justify their choices in the acquisition of software, added Troiano. “Both public bodies and the interested public can ask the Italian Digital Agency to check if a given organisation is following the correct procedure. Administrative courts can annul decisions that contradict these rules. In case of negligence, individual public servants may be held personally liable.”

“The public administration has the right to acquire software under conditions of free and open-source software. There is no doubt about this,” said Troiano. He added that this is  the case for both pre-packaged and customised software.

There is no excuse. All public administrations must opt for free software or re-use whenever possible, said Carlo Piana, Free Software Foundation Europe’s general counsel, who participated in the committee that advised on the guideline.

Now free software and re-use are the norm, proprietary software the exception. This is the most advanced affirmative action in Europe so far. I’m so proud that Italy leads the way, for once,” he added.

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