On September 19th, Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s Prime Minister, issued a circular to all the ministries proposing recommendations about the use of Free Software in public administrations and ministries.
This happened after Italy’s new law on software procurement clearly stipulating that the use of Free Software is to be preferred upon other alternatives.
This text is mainly based on a report from the cross-ministry IT services. Its main idea rests on their consideration of Free Software as an “educated choice” that must be spread among all the ministries.
The introduction acknowledges Free Software’s advantages for public administrations such as: “costs, flexibility or the balance of power with software editors”.
After presenting Free Software in general, the circular focuses on how it constitutes an “educated choice”, presenting its main advantages and disadvantages. The cross-ministry IT services consider the need for equity in the software market and the benefits that Free Software can bring regarding this issue by answering to various needs of the different administrations.
By this decision, French public IT services also want to increase their work with the Free Software communities in a twofold process. On one hand, asking the communities for support and enhancements, and on the other hand, giving back by publishing or modifying code.
The actual recommendations that will have to be taken into account by the ministries are detailed in eight main points.
- Set up a convergence between ministries about which versions to use
The circular is highlighting the need to have common software versions. Each ministry is asked, to report the use of their software versions on a common collaborative platform. The idea is to have the most homogeneous pool of software possible. In order to simplify updates and the procurement of support contracts, this knowledge base is to be updated each trimester. One could argue in favour of this short period saying that Free Software evolves quite fast.
- Activate an expert network within ministries
Having different software for different uses makes it harder for every ministry to have an overall knowledge of all the various software solutions. The solution is to create a network of key people who know about a specific piece of software so that, put together, they could address questions and issues by meeting regularly. To accomplish this, several tools are considered such as: working groups, Free Software days, mailing lists, or collaborative sites.
- Enhance the Free Software support in a supervised economic context
The need for support is the same whether you use proprietary or Free Software. Whereas proprietary software offers little flexibility regarding specific support needs, Free Software has a more reactive approach. Support can then be achieved by the community for broadly used software and by service companies for more specific needs. Without discarding the community asset, the circular emphasises the need for awarding public contracts to software support companies arguing that they provide
faster response time and a result commitment.
- Contribute to the community
Sparing a lot of money on licenses and improving software to match their needs, the cross-ministry IT services feel that they must give back to the community.
The recommendation is to give back from 5 up to 10% of the saved amount of money to the community through different methods like publishing code modifications, funding
academic research, accessibility, or involving employees.
- Follow the big communities
To be able to follow the evolution of the software used and to match the administration’s needs requires a contact between the ministries and big Free Software communities representing well known and used software like the Mozilla Foundation of the Document Foundation. This contact is to be initiated by the ministries and the circular recommend a coordination on this topic for them to weigh more in the communities. However, the latter should not prevent the ministries who already are in touch with some communities from sharing their knowledge and contacts.
This idea of better contact is reinforced by a two-way communication. Indeed, the ministries have to be able to listen to the communities and provide them with help when they can.
- Deploy credible and working alternatives to main editors solutions
To make the best use of time and money, the ministries must be on the look-out for better IT solutions. They also need to be able to maintain these solutions in time with long term support contracts. To do that, they must find good alternatives to the proprietary, market leading, software solutions. A working group is thus in charge of monitoring the alternatives and studying their possible adoption. This group, is, for example, currently studying virtualisation alternatives.
- Trace usage and effects
As part of almost every public action, the ministries will have to record usage statistics and feedbacks to write annual reports in order to adapt the policies.
- Develop the culture of free licenses in the development for public IT
As they will use and make Free Software, the ministries have to ensure that all development is shared and distributed under free licenses. The state must keep its hand on the liberation of the outsourced code production. In order to do this, the people involved will be trained to the use of free licenses from developers to jurists and project leaders.
In the end, this circular is a good news for Free Software in France. One can only hope that these are the bases for a broader action throughout the country, following Italy’s example. This could also be a good opportunity to reject software patents and to promote the use of Free Software in other public fields and not only IT.