Why is it so hard for administrations to switch to free software on a large scale?

For the sake of saving public funds, pragmatic or ideological logic, some French communities are switching their computer equipment to free software. An approach strewn with technical and practical pitfalls.

The flood has taken over Arles. This December 2003, the town of Bouches-du-Rhône is submerged by mudslides. Coffins come out of their holes. Their tenants may not complain, the city services are struggling to track down the beneficiaries to repair the concessions. The fault of poorly put together software.

The reaction does not take long. Rather than continuing to pay for an inefficient license and prohibitive assistance, Arles technical services have rolled up their sleeves to develop their own management software: openCimetière.

18 years have passed. openCimetière is at version 4.16, and now manages concessions throughout France, because the services of Arles have developed it in the form of free software. That is, whose production recipe, the source code, is public and can be copied, improved, used, by anyone. A logic that is opposed to “proprietary” systems, whose internal mechanics can only be repaired by its creators. Arles was already involved in this approach before the floods, attracted by ” questions of cost, pragmatism and the sharing approache ”, recalls François Raynaud, director of information systems for the city.

The dynamic of free began with a visit to a high school entirely run on the open-source operating system Linux. The civil servant and the elected representative whom he accompanies detect a potential: ” IT was functional, with office automation at costs ten times lower than ours. »Office, workstation, operating system … Put end to end, the IT investment weighs heavily on the finances of communities. So Arles switched its proprietary software to open source. From Microsoft Word, agents have moved to LibreOffice. The city’s Windows servers have become Linux servers. For what earnings? ” Between 2006 and 2014, we saved 450,000 euros across our city ”, calculates François Raynaud.

The Linux logo

The experience is not isolated, it even tends to prosper: Nantes, Angoulême, Montreuil, Abbeville… Many communities, on an ultra-local or regional scale, are moving towards open-source tools. In Grenoble, the ecological municipality has installed free office suites on some 1,500 workstations intended for its agents. ” It is a political choice, to seize the digital. In particular to affirm the principles of sovereignty, autonomy, openness and sharing: it is a digital common », Assumes Laurence Comparat, former assistant in charge of this project.

The Isère metropolis has gone so far as to switch the 600 computers in its schools’ IT equipment to Linux, raising awareness among its youngest people about the libriste penguin. Goal : ” Do not preformat students to a proprietary environment. To achieve this, the computers were equipped with the Primtux distribution, an environment for teaching purposes, with an overlay of software designed by teachers, and adapted to each primary class.

Free has a cost

But free does not mean free. ” There is an exit cost to pay », Underlines Pascal Kuczynski, general delegate of the Association of Developers and Users of Free Software for the Administration and Territorial Communities (ADULLACT). Changing software requires training agents, modifying their working habits, sometimes having recourse to specialized service providers to facilitate the transition of communities: hotline maintenance, training, accommodation, installation, etc. ” There are licensing savings after ten years, but no money immediately. We must redirect spending towards the transition ”, supports Laurence Comparat.

Communities begin the transition to free with the easiest: office automation. Training days are organized to handle everyday software tools. ” While the agents are being trained, they can continue to use their usual software in parallel, and gradually switch the documents to free-office. It is only when you are certain that the transition is successful that you disconnect the Microsoft Office plug. », Assures Laurence Comparat.

The operating systems pill is harder to swallow for city officials. Despite the goodwill of its IT team, Arles has never managed to switch its fleet to Linux. ” It was too much trouble. They asked us to come back to Windows », Regrets François Raynaud. To date, barely 3% of the municipal fleet, or around thirty machines, runs on Linux. Mainly within the IT department.

“Without a lasting solution on the open source, we will remain on the owner. This is the principle of reality ”

The obstacles to the development of free are legion. With 4,000 agents, Grenoble acts on an industrial scale and cannot afford any mistakes. ” There are sectors where we need proven tools: accounting, human resources, messaging, etc. Without a sustainable open source solution, we will remain with the owner. This is the principle of reality », Points out Laurence Comparat. It is also a question of human resources. The capacity of communities to absorb new tools is unlimited. Lucid, the former assistant sighs: ” We cannot require officers to spend their time training.

Junction points are also break points. If the environmentalist Town Hall of Grenoble has released its software, this is not the case with the Metropolis piloted by the socialists. However, the two communities regularly work together, at the risk of creating difficulties for their shared services.

Same seizure for schools, under shared supervision between the municipalities and national education. The municipality equips the schools, but does not take over the training of teachers. To solve this puzzle, the city organized hands-on time, supported by a specialist from the Grenoble Academy in charge of Information and Communication Technologies for Education. ” A legitimate relay, but limited to a half-time, therefore with a limited capacity for action », Specifies Laurence Comparat.

Where can I find free tool libraries dedicated to communities?

2005, Arles is once again struggling. Few free business software then meet the needs of communities. The municipality decides to form working groups with ADULLACT. Together, they worked on software dedicated to elections, and created openElec which manages the electoral lists, the registration of voters, the edition of the electoral map, until the transfers to INSEE of new registrations. This is followed by the openCourrier messaging service, the one devoted to openCadastre, openMarchés, openRecensus… In total, 37 free software programs have been developed for municipalities, all available on openMairie.

These software are now part of the “Forge” of ADULLACT. A platform where free software financed by public money is hosted, intended for communities of all sizes: municipalities, departments, regions, etc. 735 software programs are listed there to date. To avoid an administrative monster, ADDULACT pays for the maintenance of the platform, the communities regulate their membership in the association. In 2021, it has 310 direct members, and 5,000 indirect communities. ” When a community of municipalities joins, it can benefit the municipalities that make it up. », Explains Pascal Kuczynski.

The latest resource available to administrations, the Comptoir du Libre, catalogs 350 software programs that integrate the ministerial base of free software. ” We will also find colleagues there, discuss with two of the advantages and limitations of software, and suggest improvements. “Boasts Pascal Kuczynski. The ADULLACT delegate is categorical: ” In the computer world, those who knew about free software were rare 20 years ago. Today everyone takes us seriously. “Witness the parliamentary information report by LREM deputy Philippe Latombe published this summer:” The use of free software in public administrations must be strongly encouraged and become a principle that only suffers from duly justified exceptions.

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